Stinging nettle, Common Nettle, Burn Nettle, Burn Weed, Burn Hazel.
Meaning of Botanical Name
Urtica comes from the Latin verb urere, meaning ‘to burn,’ coming from the burning sensation you feel if stung by this plant, and the species name dioica means ‘two houses’ because this plant usually contains male or female flowers.
Stinging nettles are well known for the burning sensation they give if handled needlessly. On the stem of a nettle stalk are thousands of small needles, typically pointing upwards, with small sacks at the base of the needle. These sacks are filled with various chemicals some of which are acetylcholine, histamine, 5-HT (serotonin), moroidin, leukotrienes, and possibly formic acid.
On grabbing a nettle stalk the needles go into your skin, and the force on the sack disperses chemicals into your skin, resulting in an often-painful rash and burning sensation. However, this can be avoided, typically if you pick nettles whilst moving your hand up the stalk, meaning as you come into contact you should pop the sacks of chemicals without the needles going into your skin. In theory you could actually firmly hold a nettle stalk at its base and run your hand all the way up the stem squeezing and popping all of the sacks, removing the nettle’s ability to sting you (but I wouldn’t want to try it out).
Needless to say – everyone has been stung by a nettle at some point in their life, and when it does inevitably happen there’s various folk remedies that may aid the pain, these can be typically found growing for free by the same nettle that stung you, the most common of which is dock leaves. Others include dandelion, horsetail (Equisetopsida spp.), greater plantain, jewelweed (Impatiens capensis and Impatiens pallida), the underside of a fern (the spores), mud, saliva and the juice from a nettle, ironically. It’s difficult to say whether any one of these would fully aid due to the complex mixture of chemicals in the sting, but maybe a mixture of the lot of them would go some way.
Could be confused with…
Dead nettle looks similar and can cause quite a shock when picked with no stings, they don’t grow as large as stinging nettles, they don’t sting and their flowers grow up the stem and look like small bells. The whole of this plant is also edible and if you suck on the base of the flower you can get a nice hit of sweet juice (why the bees seem to like it so much).
Small nettle, also stings (similarly edible).
Food Plant of…
It may be hard to believe, due to its stinging capability, but the nettle supports over 40 species of insect including some of our most colourful butterflies, but it’s the presence of the stings that has allowed the relationship with numerous insect species to develop. The stinging hairs of the nettle developed as a defense against grazing animal, since there’s less animals it means there’s more insects!
Species include: tortoiseshell butterfly, peacock butterfly, lots of aphids, ladybirds, and a huge array of seed eating birds when the nettle goes into seed.
Range and Distribution
One of the most prolific plants throughout the UK, Northern Europe, most of Asia, the United States and Canada. Sometimes struggling further south as it prefers moist soil.
Roadsides, railways banks, waste ground, hedgerows, urban and sub-urban areas, field edges
The stinging nettle is a herbaceous perennial, typically being dioecius with groups of male and female plants growing separately. It has widely spread rhizomes that are bright yellow along with the roots.
The stem grows from 1-2m tall through the summer and dies down to ground through the winter, it’s hollow, ribbed and houses many fine hairs and stinging needles. Leaves are pale green, turning darker throughout the year – they have a cordate base and an acuminate tip with a heavily serrated margin, growing from 3-15cm and are placed oppositely up the stem. It bears very small flowers in densely packed axillary inflorescences.
Folklore, tall tales, and not so folklore
Most of the folklore surrounding nettles relates in some way to being protected, either from others, spirits or ailments. It’s believed that picking a nettle from its root, holding it up in the air and skipping around where the nettle once stood, whilst repeating the name of someone who’s ill will make them feel better.
An English rhyme states:
“Tender-handed, stroke a nettle,
And it stings you for your pains.
Grasp it like a man of mettle,
And it soft as silk remains.”
Root: herbal use.
Stem: edible when young, becomes fibrous with age.
Leaves: edible when young, become fibrous with age.
Talking to a range of herbalists, it seems that nettles are the go-to herb for most ailments and they are the lifeblood of current herbalism. Nettle root has been used to help treat prostate cancer and generally helps you keep a healthy prostate. Teas, infusions, creams and tincture are mainly used to help educe allergies, stimulate digestion, cleanse blood, aid lactation, reduce inflammation, promote menstruation, relieve pain, kill germs, stop hair loss, lower body temperature, increase urination, stop bleeding, dilate blood vessels, lower blood pressure, heal wounds.
The use of nettles is proven to aid arthritis, although clinical trials isolated a number of chemicals present in the nettle for tests, traditionally you would hit the desired area with the stinging nettle for up to 20 minutes, causing the heat sensation for a number of hours. This is said to lead to relaxation in the arthritis complaints for a number of months, Fergus has noted that picking nettles with his bare hands has helped arthritis in his thumb joint.
Fibres from the stem of this plant make an extremely strong cord and can be spun very finely to also make thread. Interestingly, a number of companies around the world are still looking in to this plant for potential use as cloth and clothing – I’m happy to say Sunny Savage, who’s helped with this book, is one of them.
We also grind and powder the leaves and use it to make a dry watercolour, which works well for paint, if used in any other medium other than as a dry watercolour it tends to clump and look messy.
Parts for Dyeing
A very dull green can be made from the stems and leaves, a glossy yellow can be made from the roots with alum being used as a mordant.
Suitability for Paper Making
The fibres that are used for cord can also be cut to about ½ of a centimetre and used for making paper – it’s a good way of using leftover fibre or fibre that’s too small for spinning. Using nettle fibre alone for making paper creates an extremely strong piece that almost resembles fabric in appearance, feel and strength. Although, pure nettle fibre shrinks a lot on drying and unless it’s being press dried is difficult to keep flat and uniform. Therefore, I believe it’s best to mix nettle fibre in with another less strong fibre. In fact the best paper I’ve made to date included 20% nettle fibre to 80% birch polypore mushroom fibre.
Tips and Observations
We only pick the leaves for eating before the plant goes into flower, after this point pick the seed for eating and still use the leaves for paint making. When picking a large amount of this plant I’ve started wearing fire gauntlets as they cover a lot of your arm and you can pretty much guarantee you will not get any stings.
It might be worth mentioning the fact that this plant is high in nitrogen, if it grows near your allotment or anywhere you’re growing plants it’s a good idea to cut down the nettles prior to them going in to seed (so they don’t spread) and using the stalks and leafs either in your compost or as mulch straight on the ground to provide a boost of nitrogen to your growing plants.
Young nettle tops can be picked at any point of the year as long as they’re fresh growth, this can be encouraged by pruning back nettles during the summer periods prior to the plant going in to flower – and can therefore prolong the nettle picking season. It’s commonly found where councils look after and trim plants on land.
The last word goes to…
“Within the Buckingham Palace gardens nettles play an important role in the wildlife habitat areas providing a valuable food source for caterpillars.”
Head Gardener, Buckingham Palace