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Stinging Nettles Have Been Used Used for Tea, Twine and Tincture

Stinging nettles are likely familiar to anyone who spent time as a child camping in the wild. Brush against them or unwittingly grab a stem and the experience won’t be quickly forgotten. They’re covered with tiny needle-like hairs that cause a painful stinging or burning sensation and leave a rash.

The plants are widespread throughout most of Europe and North America.

The scientific name, Urtica dioica, sounds appropriate for a plant that “hurts” when touched. The genus name (Urtica) comes from a Latin word meaning “to burn.” The species name refers to the fact the plants are dioecious, having separate plants for male and female.

Despite the sting, nettles are attractive plants that typically grow in stands in damp woods, disturbed areas, or almost any moist ground where they can get a foothold. They grow to about 4 feet tall with delicate toothed leaves growing opposite each other on slender stems. Clusters of tiny greenish flowers hang from the leaf axils during the summer. Plants are perennial, although the stems die back to the ground in winter. They spread by underground rhizomes, and can become pest where they’re not wanted.

The sting comes from several chemicals in the hairs, including formic acid.

Boiling Deactivates the Stinging Hairs

The stinging may seem an unlikely start for a plant that has been woven into fiber and swallowed as medicine for thousands of years.

Today nettles are a favorite of wildcrafters and wild food enthusiasts. They’re harvested using gloves then immersed in boiling water to deactivate the sting.

Over the ages, nettles have been used in folk medicine for a variety of ills, including colds and as a general tonic. A compress of nettles was used for muscle and joint aches. Today, nettle tinctures, as well as dried nettle for making tea, are sold in health food stores.

Some of the benefits associated with nettles are often attributed to high nutrient levels contained in the leaves.

Wild food enthusiasts have numerous recipes for preparing nettles to eat, including simmering in soups and sautéing, once the initial cooking has removed the sting. Young leaves are collected from the plants in the spring before the flowers appear.

A Fiber for Clothing and Fishing Nets

Many people throughout the ages have used the inside stems of nettles as a fiber for clothing. The outside bark would be removed for use in basketry, while the inside fibers were softened and processed for weaving. The inside stems can also be separated and twisted into cording. Native Americans used nettle fiber for snares and fish nets.

The rhizome and roots of nettles are bright yellow and have been used to produce a yellow dye.

For anyone who enjoys rural or woodland walks, learning to recognize stinging nettle can help avoid accidental contact and the resulting sting and rash.

Guidance with positive identification and preparation of plants from specific locations should be sought before attempting to collect any wild plants to eat.