Stinging Nettle – Weekly Weeder #16

Stinging nettle, Urtica dioica - range, identification, food for wildlife and humans, medicinal uses, nettles as a rennet substitute.

Today’s featured plant is stinging nettle, Urtica dioica.

Stinging nettle is also known as common nettle, slender nettle, tall nettle, stingers, wild spinach, plaything and devil leaf.  Handle with care (or gloves).  The stinging sensation these produce is quite uncomfortable.

Young stingning nettle plant

Young nettle plant

Range and Identification of Stinging Nettle

The Wisconsin University Bioweb states:

Urtica dioica was originally found in the cooler regions of northern Europe, Asia and the United States. Now stinging nettles can be found in many areas of the United States, Canada, Europe, Asia, Africa and South America. The stinging nettle flourishes in temperate climates where it can receive plentiful sunlight.

The plants are commonly found along rivers, lakes and streams. However, they survive well in areas that have been subject to human destruction such as in ditches, along rail road tracks, at the edge of woods, in abandoned farm fields and in empty lots. Nettles are often plentiful in these areas because of the high nitrogen levels in the soil left behind from waste such as decomposing hay and animal feces.

I first noticed them on our property growing along an old fence line near the driveway.  I thought about harvesting them, but wasn’t keen on ingesting driveway fallout and didn’t want to fuss with moving them.  Last year I discovered a new patch in the remains of an old manure pile, so this year I should be well stocked with nettle.  I cleared out the patch early this spring to give the plants plenty of room to grow.  Here’s a photo or the early spring growth.

baby nettles

Young nettle sprouts just emerging from the soil

The mature leaves are oblong, the entire plant is covered with fine hairs and grows from 3-7 feet tall.  Touching the plant with bare hands will produce a stinging or burning sensation.  Nettles have male and female plants.  (If you want to learn more about nettle love, check here.)  We’re mostly interested in the young leaves, although other parts are also useful.

Stinging Nettles as Food for Wildlife and Humans

Stinging nettles play host to a wide variety of insects and provide food for many other critters.  They are the only food source for the larval form of the red admiral butterfly.  When I was a little girl, my mom would always add some chopped nettles and sour milk to cow feed to feed to the baby ducks and geese.  Remember:  Handle with care!

Nettle can be used as you would any cooked green and is rich in vitamins and minerals.  Don’t eat it raw or undercooked, as it will produce a stinging sensation in your mouth and throat, and possibly a mild itching sensation all over your lower jaw like the one I’m experiencing now….

Like all edible wild plants, be careful to make sure to clearly identify the plant and test a little at first before consuming in quantity.  I did not react to a dried nettle infusion.  I did react to fresh nettle infusion.  Nothing serious, and the itch is already fading, but I’ll make sure to thoroughly cook or dry my nettles before consuming them in the future.  Note:  Healing Wise has a very nice assortment of nettle recipes for food and for hair and skin tonics.

Nettles as a Herbal Rennet Substitute for Cheesemaking

You can use nettles and some other herbs as a rennet substitute in cheesemaking.  (The book Stillroom Cookery mentions cleavers and Jerusalem artichoke as other options as well.)  Susun Weed gives a recipe for nettle rennet in Healing Wise:

  • 1 quart nettles
  • 1 quart water
  • 1 teaspoon salt

Cook nettles in simmering salted water in well-covered pan for ten minutes. Strain and add to warm milk. (Each cup of this will curdle 4 quarts (1 gallon) of milk.)

Medicinal Uses of Stinging Nettle

In Healing Wise, Susun Weed sings the praises of nettle for just about everything, lauding it as a hair and skin tonic, adrenal booster, bone builder,  gout healer and more.  It’s very high in many vitamins and minerals, including magnesium, and also contains natural antihistamines.

I’ve seen numerous sites recommend the use of nettle capsules leading up to allergy season to reduce seasonal allergies (and heard that it works from friends who have tried it).  Given that gout responds to magnesium, it would make sense that nettle would aid gout sufferers.  It has been used both orally and via urtication. Urtication means flailing the affected joints with nettles.   Read more in the post, “Home Remedies for Arthritis“.

For a more in depth discussion of nettle’s healing properties, please read “Medicinal Qualities of Stinging Nettle“.  Susun Weed also has a very thought provoking article titled “Healthy Bones the Wise Woman Way” in which she details an effective natural strategy for keeping our bones strong and resilient as we age.

To make a nettle infusion, simply pour boiling water over one ounce dried chopped leaves (by weight), cover and steep 4 hours or overnight.  Strain out plant material and drink.  Refrigerate any leftovers and consume within 48 hours.  As I mentioned, I did have a slight reaction to fresh nettles, so dried may be safer.

In the video below I show off our spring nettle patch.

bcart If you can’t find nettles in your area, Mountain Rose Herbs stocks nettle seed (for planting) as well as an assortment of dried nettles.

Mountain Rose Herbs. A herbs, health and harmony c

I hope you’ve enjoyed this post.  If so, please pass it along, or Pin It so you don’t forget about the goodness of nettles.  :-)

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    • says

      Phil – only one way to find out for sure. Each person reacts to things a little differently. All Susun’s recipes call for greens to be well cooked, and after my experience yesterday, I think I’ll stick with well cooked. My mouth still feels a little funny. I have been eying up the nettle beer recipe….

  1. Janet says

    If you simmer the fresh leaves for a minimum of 10 minutes you will eliminate the stinging properties. Then you can eat the leaves and resulting broth/tea.

  2. Wren says

    Nettle looks like a lot of the weeds that grow around here, and this being the worst allergy year I’ve had in a while, I thought, allergy remedy, I can try that! But the itching sensation you mention makes me worry that maybe that’s one of the things I’m allergic to. When I walk through a wild field if I’m barefoot or in shorts I break out in awful, itchy rashes. I know specifically some grasses get me, but what, if anything else, I’m not sure of. So to be safe I think I shall steer clear. 😉
    That being said, having just recently discovered Nourishing Traditions, the GAPS diet, Deep Nutrition, etc. type nutritional recommendations after years of being a vegetarian, I’m trying to incorporate more of the whole fats, probiotics, organ meats, etc. in my diet and cut back on grains. I’m a gradual change kinda gal, so maybe it won’t do so much for this season’s allergies, but here’s hoping I get things ironed out so I’m not so miserable and sneezy and stuffy next year! :)

    • says

      Nettles do produce a stinging sensation when you touch them. I would not walk bare legged through a field of nettles, unless perhaps I was trying to treat joint pain in my legs. Some people flagellate joints afflicted with gout type symptoms with nettle, as the stinging is supposed to refocus the pain away from the gout pain somehow. I have not tried this. If you do try the nettles, make sure to cook thoroughly, and try only a small amount.

  3. Lora says

    It says “To make a nettle infusion, simply pour boiling water over one ounce fresh or dried chopped leaves (by weight)” … is this correct? As we all know, an ounce of fresh is a lot less than an ounce of dried, wouldn’t the dried be super strong, or the fresh be super weak? Isn’t it like herbs, where you divide by about 4 fresh to 1 dry?

    • says

      Lora – yes, you are right. It really doesn’t matter too much if an infusion is much stronger, but in this case the dried herb is much less likely to provoke a reaction. With other herbs, I generally just chop and go, so I gave the measurement as a rough guideline.

  4. SarahM says

    Hi, Laurie. You’ve inspired me to gather nettles! I have lots. I was wondering how long you dried yours and at what temperature. (I also have an Excalibur.) Thank you!

  5. Clayton Wangbichler says


    My name is Clayton Wangbichler. I work for Mountain Bike Action Magazine. I’ve written a story, regarding pretty plants on the trail that leave a bit of a bite. Living in the desert of Southern California, I don’t have the ability to photograph these plants. Would you be willing to grant me permission to use the top stinging nettle photo above?

    Thank you,

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