This post is by Jocie Brooks, leader of the Botany Group, adapted from her email to members of the group on May 4.
Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica ssp. gracilis)
Many people first learn about stinging nettle the hard way. My first encounter, as a child, was a downhill wagon ride that ended in a roll through the nettle patch. A painful, bumpy red rash was the result.
Despite its bad reputation, stinging nettle is a highly useful plant, and can be harvested as a spinach-like vegetable for use as steamed greens or in soups or pesto. It also makes an excellent medicinal tea. When the plant dies down in the late summer/fall, the tough fibres from the stem were traditionally harvested to make netting and cordage.
Stinging nettle has a square stem, with leaves opposite each other. The bright green leaves are saw-toothed, tapering to a point. Drooping clusters of small greenish flowers at the axils are either male or female (on the same plant) with the female spikes usually above the males. Stinging nettle is a perennial and spreads from rhizomes, often forming extensive colonies.
The genus name Urtica means “to burn” and the species name dioica means dioecious, or males and females on separate plants, which is true of some stinging nettle subspecies (not ours, which is monoecious). The word nettle comes from the old German word “nezzila” which translates as “net.”
What causes the sting?
Stinging nettle has hollow hairs called trichomes and at the base of each hair is a gland that contains formic acid. Touching the plant causes the tip of the hair to break, and the fluid is drawn through the capillary hair into one’s flesh. Brave people like to show off by grasping nettles firmly, proving that they do not sting if you break the delicate hairs.
Where to find it
Stinging nettle likes nitrogen-rich soil and is often found on disturbed sites such as roadsides, clearings and middens. It can also be found in open forest, meadows and stream sides.
The first leaves of nettle usually appear in March or early April, and it is best to harvest before flowering. Gloves must be worn for harvesting, but after cooking nettle loses its sting. Beware of harvesting nettle from contaminated areas. In our area, this includes old railway grades (that were heavily sprayed) and former coal mining sites (even though they may look natural).
Note that stinging nettle is an important larval foodplant for butterflies in our area, most notably the Milbert’s tortoiseshell, Satyr angelwing and red admiral. When harvesting, take only what you need and leave the rest!
- Samuel Pepys reported in his diary that he enjoyed a nettle porridge on February 25, 1661.
- During WWII hundreds of tons of nettle were harvested in Great Britain for the extraction of chlorophyll and dyes for camouflage nets.
- One of Aesop’s fables (by an ancient Greek storyteller) tells a story of a boy who was stung by nettles. He ran home and told his mother, saying, “Although it hurts me very much, I only touched it gently.” “That was just why it stung you,” said his Mother. “The next time you touch a nettle, grasp it boldly, and it will be soft as silk to your hand, and not in the least hurt you.” Moral: whatever you do, do it with all of your might!