Reading the words “Stinging Nettle” can create the itching sensation we all know and hate. It’s easy to see why it’s also been known as a devil’s claw, devil’s plaything and burn weed. There’s nothing quite like brushing your bare shin against a Nettle and knowing, within minutes, you will be covered in itchy, red bumps that tingle and ache for the rest of the day. But have you every stopped to wonder, ‘what is it that makes the Stinging Nettle sting, and why?’. Hopefully, by the end of this blog post you’ll not only have your answer, but also a new found respect for this multipurpose plant, and the long history we have with it.
Stinging Nettle or Common Nettle (Urtica dioica) are dioecious, meaning the male and female reproductive systems are in different flowers and sometimes plants. They can be found in much of Europe, Asia and North Africa. They thrive in disturbed environments, making them particularly difficult to avoid on overgrown footpaths. It was the Romans who introduced Stinging Nettles to Britain. To overcome the cooler climates of Great Britain, Romans would tie bundles of Nettles together and flog their legs with them to stimulate blood-flow and heat up their limbs. This is because Nettles cause an inflammatory effect on skin in two, very clever but extremely evil, ways.
First, by using a physical mechanism. All but one of the subspecies of Stinging Nettle has stinging hairs, called trichomes, on their leaves and stems. These trichomes are sharp, pointed cells that, upon touch, break off in the skin. The effect is similar to a hypodermic needle. The following mechanism is chemical. Toxins, including histamine, are released from the trichome and are injected into the skin. Antihistamines are therefore partly effective at relieving the itch, but traditionally it’s known that Dock leaves are an effective natural remedy. Dock and Nettles thrive in the same habitats so you can usually find one nearby.
Stinging Nettles aren’t all evil though. The effect of the sting has actually been used to treat rheumatism for centuries. In fact, Hippocrates listed 61 medicinal uses for Nettles. Boiled or juiced nettles have been used to treat stomach aches, kidney and urinary tract conditions, flu, gout, skin conditions, hayfever, fatigue, anaemia and cardiovascular problems. Nettle leaves can be boiled in water and combined with honey and cinnamon to make a tasty UTI remedy. If you are going to try this, I’d recommend wearing sturdy gloves for harvesting, only harvesting young leaves, and trying a small cup to make sure you don’t have an adverse reactions.
Beside their traditional medicinal qualities, Nettles have a wide range of other purposes. If you find yourself lost in the wilds of the British countryside in Summer, Nettles could become your best friend. They have a similar taste to spinach and, when cooked, are a great source of vitamins and minerals. Their stems contain bast fibre and have historically been used to make cord and clothing. During World War I, a shortage of cotton meant that German uniforms had to be made from Nettle. The fibres are fine, soft and shiny, and so they were used as luxurious funeral shrouds during the Bronze Age; it was like a Bronze Age silk. The leaves also produce a natural green dye, something still used in Germany to keep canned vegetables looking fresh. You can even make beer from young nettles.
While many of us think of Stinging Nettles as an annoyance to be avoided during our sunny, summer walks, Nettles have been an important part of human history. Providing relief from a myriad of ailments, nutritious supplements for our diets, and putting clothing on our backs, the humble Stinging Nettle is more than just a source of itchy bumps.
Nettle shroud: The National Museum of Denmark