The air is fresh with a hint of dampness. I can feel my lungs relax as I inhale the earthy richness of the wet soil. Rock outcroppings apron the open path. Occasional giant ponderosas offer shade, buffering, and the space for quiet solitude as I walk. Creekside sounds—the honking of geese, the chattering of mallards, and the flowing riffle of the creek itself, provide a soothing backdrop to my outing this morning. Around the bend and beneath a granite overhang, I begin my search for one of my favorite of spring tonic plants, Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica,, U. gracilis or U. urens).
Protected by the rocks and fed by their seeping rivulets of moisture, my search drops me to my knees for a closer look. Nestled within thick root structures of adjacent grasses and hugged by a carpet of moss, new nettle shoots emerge, beginning their upward journey to leaf, flower and fruit. In this radiantly cool shaded wetness, and among other thorny neighbors—shrubs of wild raspberry and gooseberry, the patches of nettles will soon offer their mineral rich wild selves as both food and medicine. Absorbed and contained within is their bountiful alchemy of earth and water, grounding and cooling. Within a matter of weeks these sprouts will form prickly spikes from three to six feet in height. The stems of nettles are square with opposite, lance-shaped leaves displaying broadly serrated edges. Stiff hairs appearing on the stems and paler undersides of the leaves create a formidable defense. When inadvertently touched, the hairs will eject a droplet of formic acid (ouch!), producing their painful sting and irritating skin reaction. While harvesting, wearing gloves is essential. Once the leaves have wilted the hairs lose their potency and plants can be handled without worry. To insure their optimal quality as food or medicine, plants are best harvested before flowering takes place. The flowers of the nettle plant are greenish in color and inconspicuous. Emerging from the leaf axils are gracefully flowing cascades of tiny blooms. The plants are dioiecious and wind pollinated, with separate plants having male and female flowers.
Stinging nettles, a favorite old world springtime tonic, has received a lot of press and public attention lately. By some, it is considered an annoying weed; by others a valuable remedy for clearing body toxins and, most notably, for nourishing and restoring strength and vitality. By reputation, it’s a kind of “Geritol” of the plant kingdom. In today’s terms, it might be labeled a “superfood”. Recent media attention by Nicole Spiridakis of NPR (National Public Radio Archives, NETTLES BRING SPRING TO THE KITCHEN, April 17, 2013) featured a segment praising the benefits of this wild food and medicine as holding nature’s hidden secret of vitality.
As a wild food, nettle leaves are protein-rich (claims as high as 24%), containing iron, magnesium, potassium and many other trace minerals. Vitamin B, C, beta-carotene, chlorophyll, histamine and quercitin make it one of the most nutrient rich wild food herbs. The fresh wilted leaves can be steamed and eaten as a vegetable similar to spinach or added to soups and stews. Reports indicate that nettle leaves have more protein content than spinach. Nettles pesto is quite the treat!
As medicine, all parts of the stinging nettle plant, including the roots and seeds, have value. Dried, the leaves make a springtime infusion (tea) loaded with nourishment, with a pleasant, slightly sweet, slightly salty taste. I like to combine nettle leaf, red clover buds, alfalfa leaf and oatstraw in a springtime infusion, to awaken my system after the long months of winter hibernation, to strengthen and tone all body tissues and processes that require the presence of minerals for optimum functioning. The blood enriching nature of nettles is well known.
Energetically, stinging nettles is astringent, slightly diuretic, drying, cooling and somewhat stimulating. Its properties specialize in moving congestion and supporting the body in expelling damp and stagnant metabolic waste products; the functions of letting go and releasing. It is helpful in reducing inflammation and cleansing the system of unhealthy toxins that might show up as arthritis, gout or skin conditions such as eczema. The presence of histamine makes nettles a valuable ally for treating hay fever and other seasonal allergies. Nettles improves the body’s resistance to pollens, molds, and environmental pollutants. In traditional European bath houses, the intense practice of rubbing or slapping fresh nettle plants on painful arthritic joints [urtication] is not uncommon, and used to awaken circulation and the movement of energy by opening blocked circulatory pathways.
Seeds of stinging nettle can be harvested in mid-summer and are highly energizing and stimulating to the adrenals. Although considered an endocrine tonic, a note of caution is suggested to anyone who is already plagued with adrenal fatigue–nettle seeds are stimulating and thus could cause further adrenal depletion. The roots, harvested in the fall, are well known used in combination with Saw Palmetto berries in the treatment of benign prostatic hypertrophy (BHP). Again, this is not a condition where self-medication is advised; but instead working with a capable and experienced herbalist or natural practitioner.
Europeans know of the benefits of the fibers found in the mature stalks of nettle. Many times stronger than cotton, nettle fiber was once used in a textile industry for making durable and luxuriously soft fabric; also used traditionally in making cordage, fish netting and other durable fiber products. [Photo to the immediate upper left shows mature stinging nettle in bloom].
Reflecting on the habitat where nettle thrives, it is easily possible to see the connection with its usefulness in the human body. Its relationship with water is clear by the plant’s affinity to moist soil and flowing water. Its medicinal affinity for the kidneys, urinary bladder, lymphatics and other organs of detoxification and elimination is corollary; the cool, emotionally flowing, and watery spirit of the planet Venus. In the balance is its strong, sharp, upright and boundary-protective qualities, expressing the intense masculine qualities of the planet Mars. Nettles teaches the balance of power through love. Through its sting, it teaches us awareness through presence, and the importance of paying attention to our personal space and surroundings. It expresses a wildness, a character of flow and grace, the balance of mind and heart.
I will be returning to my favorite patch of nettles in another week or two to determine whether the time is right to ask nettles for its medicinal gifts for harvest. This kind of respect is certainly appropriate protocol for sharing in the benefits of this honorable healer.
PLEASE NOTE: Posts on Yarrow’s Garden Blog andThree Sisters Medicine are for inspirational purposes only and not intended as a substitute for medical diagnosis or treatment. Herbs are Medicine! Proceed with care. Self-diagnosis and self-treatment of serious medical conditions is inappropriate and unwise. If you have or suspect a medical condition, it is your responsibility to consult a medical practitioner for appropriate treatment.
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