Blog #51: Stinging Nettles: An Excellent Tonic
Stinging nettles (Urtica dioica) has been used for centuries to help alleviate muscle pain, improve kidney and bladder function, alleviate arthritis pain, including gout, to tonify the blood in cases of iron deficiency anemia, help clear the skin in cases of eczema, and to help alleviate fatigue and even in some cases, depression. Today, it is also used to reduce or eliminate seasonal allergies and to help manage benign prostatic hyperplasia in its early stages, especially in Europe.
Nettles is considered to be an herb, and sometimes is also regarded as a weed, since the hairs or spines on the leaves and stems contain chemicals (notably formic acid) that can cause pain and redness when they come into contact with skin. Because this plant excels at pulling elements from the environment, stinging nettle is one of our most nutrient-rich greens and grows in many areas of the world. It is important that these herbs are harvested only from places with minimal or no pollution, since, in addition to thriving from areas with clean air, water, and soil, they also feed and thrive in polluted environments. If nettles are growing by the side of a heavily trafficked road, let them be. If, on the other hand, they are growing in a wooded area or on the banks of an unpolluted stream, they are safe to harvest and use. Always leave part of the plant intact so that it can continue growing the following year. It is best to wear gloves when harvesting the herb.
Nettles harvested from unpolluted areas are among the safest herbs to consume and use in infusions, but they occasionally may interfere with or magnify the actions of some medications, including blood thinners, (nettles act as mild blood thinners) diuretics, (they are mildly diuretic) drugs to lower blood pressure (nettles can lower blood pressure) and non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (they also act as mild anti-inflammatories).
Nettles are best harvested during April and May, so this time (late May to early June) is the tail end of nettles season, though you still may find them at farmer’s markets for the next week or two. By early to mid-June, they become ta bit tough and do not taste as good, so it is best to leave them to replenish themselves until the following spring. Also, as they mature, the chemicals in their hairs become stronger, and they can sometimes cause mild digestive upset when consumed too far along in their growing season. You know it is time to stop harvesting them when their flowers begin to form.
An infusion is made from the leaves and stems of the plants harvested in April and May. They can be cooked like spinach, and used to make teas or infusions. As with oat straw, they are usually dried to make infusions. Use anywhere from one heaping tablespoon to 1/4 cup of dried nettles (leaves and stems) to one quart of just boiled water. They are best left to steep about 4 hours, or even overnight, and then the herbs are strained out. Some pets like to have a small quantity of the strained dried nettles mixed into their food. This usually results in higher vitality for the pets, but should not be done over an extended period of time. You can also make an infusion from fresh nettles, using a handful or two of leaves and stems per quart of just boiled water. These fresh, cooked herbs can and should be eaten either with the infusion, or combined with some other dish.
You can find fresh nettles at farmers markets in April, May, and early June, and you may also be able to find dried nettles in some health food stores or holistic pharmacies. Be careful if you order them online, since you want to make sure that they have grown in a relatively clean environment. Frontier Herbs and several other reputable companies sell organic nettles, but you may not be able to purchase these unless you are a health care practitioner.
This week’s offer: if you want to try a dried nettles infusion but are unable to find these herbs, contact me and I can order dried organic nettles for you by the pound.