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eBarbara Pleasant: Stinging Nettles

Urtica dioica in bloom
Urtica dioica in bloom

Younger is Better

The photo above shows stinging nettle plant wearing its threadlike flowers, but I would never eat (or drink) nettles at such a late stage of maturity. Cool spring weather gives stinging nettles a subtly sweet flavor and buttery texture that is not present in older stems and leaves, which get tough and stringy. I stop cutting them to eat in late spring, and use nettle greens as compost fodder for the remainder of the season.
stinging nettles
Stinging nettles

Composting Nettles

Biodymanic gardeners use nettles to make several preparations that are believed to invigorate compost and soil. I simply compost my extra nettles, but you could make Biodynamic Preparation 504 by composting nettles underground for a year. The best method I've heard is to dig a 14-inch deep hole, place an old screen in the bottom, then a big pile of nettles and another screen. Cover with soil and wait a year. The dark, crumbly stuff between the screens is BD 504.

My new book, Homegrown Pantry, includes a section on the best garden-grown tea herbs to dry and enjoy year round! 
Urtioca dioica

Growing Stinging Nettles

It would not be accurate to say that we grow stinging nettles (Urtica dioica), because they grow themselves. This ancient herb of European lore is the most invasive herb you will ever love or hate, except for perhaps mint. A distant mint relative, stinging nettles probably developed their stinging hairs to discourage feeding by animals. Animals don't like to eat plants that make their mouths burn for hours afterward.

Stinging nettles can be used as a medicinal herb, and capsules of dried leaves may be of particular use when combined with saw palmetto in the treatment of enlarged prostate. At our house we eat nettles as delicious steamed spring greens, or make nettle tea, at least until the plants get tough. Stinging nettle plants are also part of our deer-deterrent planting scheme on the back side of the garden.

Those are plenty of benefits to growing stinging nettles, but allowing the plants to grow near your garden comes with several serious responsibilities.

You must control reseeding. In late summer, dress in long pants and a long-sleeved shirt and cut down the towering 6-foot tall stems with a scythe or a swing blade. If you don’t cut the plants back, you find yourself growing stinging nettles by accident when they pop up as weeds in your garden.

You must pull stragglers. Several times from spring to fall, the gloves must go on to pull up stinging nettle plants that appear where they are not wanted. The pulled stems with roots attached can be composted, where they will enrich the mix with both nitrogen and silicon. To be on the safe side, I let pulled plants dry in the sun for a couple of days before I compost then.

No kids allowed. Our nettles are tucked away in obscure corners where innocent visitors are not likely to be stung, but we still watch children to make sure they stay in the safe zone. But some folks have strange ideas. Two years ago, a beautiful young woman who had found The Goddess in stinging nettles came to pick bare-handed, and wanted her kids to pick, too. What was she thinking? The kids and I made peppermint tea while their mother tingled in the nettles.  

Urtica dioica

Dress Defensively

Gloves, scissors and lots of clothes will protect you from nettles while picking. In the kitchen, handle raw nettles with tongs. Steaming destroys the stinging hairs.

The tiny hairs on Urtica dioica stems and leaves are loaded with several chemicals that cause a burning, stinging sensation that can persist for hours. Some of the most popular first aid remedies include rubbing the affected skin with rubbing alcohol or mud. Prevention is better than cure!
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Stinging Nettles Used to Create New Cancer Drug

March 20, 2015  Researchers at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom have developed a new technology that uses a chemical found in stinging nettles and ants to improve cellular uptake of chemotherapy drugs. A potent form of JS07, the new drug may lead to lower doses and increased success rates of chemotherapies for ovarian and other cancers. 

Growing Stinging Nettles for Tea

For centuries, many Europeans have made a habit of drinking stinging nettle tea as a rite of spring. An easily made green tea with a slippery mouthfeel, nettle tea is loaded with antioxidants and other nutraceuticals that bring benefits to every system in the body. One of the benefits of growing stinging nettles is that you can easily dry enough to last a year. The vitamins, lutein, lycopene and iron in nettle tea really can have a restorative effect! If you’re taking other drugs and plan to drink a lot of nettle tea, do check here for possible drug interactions.

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stinging nettle tea

Nettle Tea Recipe: Heat 1 quart of water until it is quite hot and bubble begin to form. According to recent research from Poland, the best temperature for brewing nettle tea, while preserving its Vitamin C content, is 125-140°F, which is hot but not nearly boiling. Turn off the heat, and immediately stir in one quart of well washed young nettle tops. Stir again and allow to cool. Strain off the tea, and start sipping.


As for the nettles, they are now fully disarmed and can be cooked a little more before sampling. Any recipe that calls for cooked spinach – from calzones to pesto to greens for paneer – can be made with wilted nettles.

Sources for Stinging Nettle Plants

Several folks have asked where they can buy stinging nettle plants. Use an online community bulletin board to ask for freebies, specifying the species name of Urtica dioica. Other species may not have the same health benefits. You also can order stinging nettle plants by mail from reputable nurseries like the ones I have listed below. Order stinging nettles from a source close to home, because there often are restrictions on shipping live plants between states and countries.

Strictly Medicinal Plants in Oregon

Companion Plants in Ohio

Richter's Herbs in Ontario