Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) has a bad reputation for leaving stings on unsuspecting hikers who brush up against it. Despite its sting, nettle is an edible, medicinal, and all-around useful plant! In this post, I talk about foraging nettle, its uses, and how to cure that painful sting.
Identifying Stinging Nettle
Stinging nettle grows throughout North America. It enjoys damp soils and is found growing along roadsides, in ditches, and waste lands.
It grows one to six feet tall and is often found in dense patches. The leaves are opposite and ovate with toothed-serrated edges. The flowers are small, light green, and form a densely clustered spike that often dangles. The stems and leaves of nettle are covered in small hollow hairs, called trichomes.
Stinging nettle has some lookalikes. Three common ones are wood nettle (Laportea canadensis), slender nettle (Uritica gracilis), and dwarf nettle (Urtica urens). All of them are edible. Wood nettle differs from stinging nettle because it has alternate leaves. Slender nettle has less stinging hairs and dwarf nettle is smaller and more compact. Of these nettles, dwarf nettle has the most powerful sting.
To harvest nettle, use gloves and scissors to prevent stings. It’s possible to forage it without gloves by pinching the stem and pushing the hollow hairs downwards. You have to be firm and quick! That said, I recommend you gather this plant using protection. Once you are familiar with nettle and willing to risk being stung, you can practice gathering it without the use of gloves.
Stopping its Sting
The sting from nettle comes from the formic acid in its hairs. It causes irritation, redness, swelling, and pain. Some people are more sensitive to it than others. Depending on your sensitivity and contact with the plant, the pain can last a few minutes to several days.
If you get stung, wait ten minutes and then wash the area with soap and cool water. After washing, some people apply tape to remove any remaining fibres. Antihistamines can help reduce itching and swelling. A cold compress can help with irritation and pain. Aloe vera gel and a paste made from baking soda and water might provide some relief. Carefully apply these without rubbing the skin.
There are other remedies floating around the internet, but I haven’t been able to find any scientific evidence for their effectiveness. This isn’t to say they don’t work. Some say that the juices from crushed nettle or dock leaves can help relieve pain.
Whatever you do, never scratch the area and avoid heat and warm water.
Eating Stinging Nettle
Nettle is delicious! You can eat the young shoots and leaves. They are best in the early spring. Once nettle goes to flower, it loses much of its nutritional value. You can also eat nettle seeds, gather them in late summer or early fall.
Cooking nettle will make it safe to eat. Nettle cooks similar to spinach. It can be steamed, boiled, added to stir-fries, pizzas, and breads. It makes great soup, pesto, and tea. I like sautéed nettle in butter and garlic. Sprinkle the seeds over food or add them to spice mixes.
Other Uses: Cordage and Dye
Nettle fibres have been used for thousands of years to make cordage and clothing. Ray Mears has an excellent video showing you how to do this.
You can also use nettle to make dye. The roots produce a yellow dye and the leaves a light green.