Stinging Nettles (Utrica dioica)
How to Identify Stinging Nettles
Stinging nettles are well known for the burning sensation they give if handled needlessly. On the stem of a nettle stalk are thousands of small needles, typically pointing upwards, with small sacks at the base of the needle. These sacks are filled with various chemicals some of which are acetylcholine, histamine, 5-HT (serotonin), moroidin, leukotrienes, and possibly formic acid.
Could be confused with…
Dead nettles (Lamium Purpureum/Album) look similar and can cause quite a shock when picked with no stings, they don’t grow as large as stinging nettles, they don’t sting and their flowers grow up the stem and look like small bells. The whole of this plant is also edible and if you suck on the base of the flower you can get a nice hit of sweet juice (why the bees seem to like it so much).
Range and Distribution
One of the most prolific plants throughout the UK, Northern Europe, most of Asia, the United States and Canada. Sometimes struggling further south as it prefers moist soil.
Roadsides, railways banks, waste ground, hedgerows, urban and sub-urban areas, field edges.
The stinging nettle is a herbaceous perennial, growing back yearly. Typically groups of male and female plants grow separately. It has widely spread rhizomes that are bright yellow along with the roots.
The stem grows from 1-2m tall through the summer and dies down to ground through the winter, it’s hollow, ribbed and houses many fine hairs and stinging needles. Leaves are pale green, turning darker throughout the year – they have a wide base and a pointed tip with a heavily serrated margin, growing from 3-15cm and are placed oppositely up the stem. It bears very small flowers in densely packed axillary inflorescences.
Root: herbal use.
Stem: edible when young, becomes fibrous with age.
Leaves young: lacto ferment, spinach sub, crisps, pickled, soups, pesto, sauce.
Leaves old: powdered, cordial, syrup, stock.
Fruit/seeds: edible, roasted, fried.
Talking to a range of herbalists, it seems that nettles are the go-to herb for most ailments and they are the lifeblood of current herbalism. Nettle root has been used to help treat prostate cancer and generally helps you keep a healthy prostate. Teas, infusions, creams and tincture are mainly used to help educe allergies, stimulate digestion, cleanse blood, aid lactation, reduce inflammation, promote menstruation, relieve pain, kill germs, stop hair loss, lower body temperature, increase urination, stop bleeding, dilate blood vessels, lower blood pressure, heal wounds.
The use of nettles is proven to aid arthritis, although clinical trials isolated a number of chemicals present in the nettle for tests, traditionally you would hit the desired area with the stinging nettle for up to 20 minutes, causing the heat sensation for a number of hours.
Fibres from the stem of this plant make an extremely strong cord and can be spun very finely to also make thread. Interestingly, a number of companies around the world are still looking in to this plant for potential use as cloth and clothing.