Herb of the month - Stinging Nettles

Stinging Nettles - Urtica dioca - Part 1

This will be a four part series. Each week we will explore a little more about this plant. Part one I will talk about the naming and identification of the plant. The only real homework assignments my herbal students get is to explore a plant each month. Learn about it. See if you can find a specimen. Taste and experience the plant with your senses if you can. This is exactly what I intend to share with you hear. Feel free to join in each month and share your own experiences. I love hearing what other folks are learning about a plant.

I just started this years harvest of one of the most magic plants in my garden - Stinging nettles (Urtica dioca). My arms are feeling that particular sting that this plant gives. Of course this is where the common name, stinging nettles, comes from. The sensation reminds me of the feeling you get after sitting cross legged too long, when the blood starts to come back to the limb. Tingly, a little burning, uncomfortable but not unbearable. I wear gloves to harvest and work with the plant but today I have foolishly short sleeves. I know better.

This needle like sting may be the source of the common name nettle. The Anglo-Saxon word noedle or needle describes the feeling on the skin when one touches the plant. In Latin urtica comes from urere, or 'to burn'. Diocia means 'two houses', this is a plant that hosts both male and female flowers on each stem.

Botanical Description

This is a perennial herb, meaning it will grow back each year. It can grow up to 1 meter high or more. The stems are tough and straight with leaves growing opposite all the way up. The leaves are have serrated edges and are somewhat narrow with a pointed tip. Leaves can be up to 15 cm long.

The flowers are not typical, you might even wonder what they are. They hang in green clusters under the leaves. They remind me of tiny fuzzy grapes. The seeds will follow and can be tan or brown.

Of course the most tell tale sign you have found nettles is the sting. I have found them in a field with my bare feet well before my eyes spotted the young sprouts!

Nettles prefer rich and happy soil. Matthew Wood notes that it often grows near or downstream from septic systems. Here is uses the uric acid and nitrates that come from protein breakdown to build its own protein within the plant. I will talk more about uric acid and protein and nettles in further posts.

A nettle patch of my own

When I first moved into this house 7 years ago I purchased some nettle seeds. I wanted to grow some myself so I could have a fresh patch to get medicine from each year. My children were 3 and 7 years old at the time. They often worked with me in the garden. This left me unsure where I could plant these seeds. So I waited. I didn't have the heart to set a trap for my small kids.

Each spring I would look at the pack of seeds and wonder where I could put them. Each spring I decided I couldn't put them anywhere.

I kept wishing for a nettle patch but couldn't bring myself to make one happen.

Three years ago a small patch appeared. When I saw them I had to laugh. There is a spot in our garden that my kid likes to jump from the deck and into the yard. I am always after him to stay out of the garden beds, it compacts the soil and he could trample plants. Low and behold the nettles appeared in EXACTLY this spot. Nothing else was growing there because each year he trampled it. I confess I didn't tell the kids the nettle had appeared. Sure enough, a few days later my son comes blasting into the house upset because I planted nettles and he can't jump into the garden anymore. He found them all on his own! Needless to say, he doesn't jump in my garden beds any more! Here is my unopened seed packet to prove it was only magic that brought the nettles to my yard.

References

B. Grey, The Boreal Herbal, 2011

M. Wood, The Book of Herbal Wisdom, 1997

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