Stinging nettle: weed or crop?

stinging nettle
Stinging nettle. Photo courtesy Richard Gardner, UMES, Bugwood.org

by Paul Hetzler, Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County

If you have a nettle patch, put away the weed killer and consider yourself lucky to have this tasty plant.

Many gardeners don’t like stinging nettles (Urtica dioica) because they are painful to touch. The plants sprout little hypodermic needles on their stems, leaves and even flowers. These glass-like silica-based needles, called trichomes, inject a mixture of irritating chemicals upon contact.

So why would you risk putting it in your mouth?

When stinging nettles are cooked, the stinging hairs are destroyed. And nettles are the tastiest cooked green—wild or domestic—that I have ever had.

It tastes a lot like like spinach, except sweeter. Nettles can be boiled, steamed or stir-fried. They are great by themselves or in soups, omelets, pesto, casseroles or pretty much any savory dish you can come up with.

One of the things I really like about nettles is that they are some of the first green things to get going after the snow melts. I should mention that only the tops of young plants are harvested to eat. The good thing is that the more you pick, the more young tops grow back. Eventually they will get too tall and tough, but frequent picking can stretch nettle season well into June.

On a dry-weight basis, nettles are about 15 percent higher in protein than almost any other leafy green vegetable. They are a good source of iron, potassium, calcium and Vitamins A and C, and have a healthy ratio of Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids.

Gardeners use nettles as a “green manure” because nettles are high in nitrogen as well as iron and manganese. Nettles can also help attract beneficial insects.

Because drying also neutralizes nettles’ sting, they have been used as fodder for domestic animals. Today nettles are commonly fed to laying hens to improve their productivity.

Although touching nettles is painful, information from the University of Maryland Medical Center said that stinging nettle is used for pain. The plant is used in compresses or creams for treating joint pain, sprains and strains, tendonitis and insect bites.

Many people use it to treat urinary problems during the early stages of an enlarged prostate (called benign prostatic hyperplasia or BPH). It is also used for urinary tract infections and hay fever.

(Herbal remedies can have side effects and interactions, so always consult your health care provider.)

Stinging nettles are versatile– You can wear them, too. Nettles have been used for 2,000 years as a source of fiber for making cloth. During World War I, Germany used nettle fiber to make military uniforms.

I have made cordage from nettle stems using a simple technique called reverse-wrapping.

The stinging nettle is native to Europe, Asia, and northern Africa but has been widespread throughout North America from northern Mexico to northern Canada for centuries.

If you’re lucky, it will show up in your yard.

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2 Comments on “Stinging nettle: weed or crop?

  1. A very interesting article. I don’t believe I have ever come across them.in.my yard, but do see other edible plants we consider weeds. Thanks!

  2. I have had it several years ago in my yard and the sting from this plant can be very painful. My fingers actually went numb for most of the day after I tried to put it out. I did find relief from the burning in another common weed/plant … Impatiens capensis (common Jewelweed). Jewelweed is best know as a natural treatment for poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac but I figured I had nothing to losse in trying it on the stinging nettle and it did work well. It also helps to take the stink out of bee stings and its flowers are used in late summer by migrating hummers. Jewlweed is commonly found in damp or boggy areas near streams, along the lake under tree canopies or even where poison ivy grows.

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