STINGING NETTLE – Urtica dioica

Europe, Asia, North Africa and Western North America


Urtica dioica is a familiar perennial, known to many as a noxious weed. It prefers fertile, nitrogen-rich soil & is often found close to human habitation. Growing by stolons & a strong underground root system, Stinging Nettle’s rigid stems can reach one metre in height. Its deep green leaves are oval, with toothed edges & pointy tips. The plant’s flowers – light green catkins – appear between June and September.

You may walk past a mix of anonymous vegetation & find that you only notice the Stinging Nettle. The fine hollow hairs that cover its leaves & stems act as hypodermic needles, delivering a chemical cocktail to any part of your body that touches the plant. The injured body part reacts with an itching, stinging pain that can last for several hours.

Importance to Wildlife

Britain’s butterfly & moth populations are under threat; if you wonder what you could do to help, you might consider keeping a patch of Stinging Nettles. Little care is required. Once the plant is given a suitable corner where it puts no passing humans at risk, you only need to keep it watered.

Comma on Stinging Nettles

 

 

 

Stinging Nettle is relied on as a larval food plant by British Butterflies: Comma, Painted Lady, Peacock, Red Admiral & Small Tortoiseshell. Moths who depend on the plant include the Angle Shades, Bordered Pearl, Buff Ermine, Burnished Brass, Dot Moth, Dotted Clay, Flame, Garden Tiger, Ghost Moth, The Gothic, Grey Chi, Grey Pug, Lesser Yellow Underwing, Mother of Pearl, Mouse Moth, Mottled Rustic, Silver Y, Small Angle Shades, Small Magpie & White Ermine.

Small Tortoiseshell Caterpillar on Stinging Nettles, meadow mural, Ecology Centre, Gillespie Park.

 

 

Fly Deterrent

Although in Britain upwards of thirty insects feed solely on the Nettle plant, flies have a distaste for the plant, and a fresh bunch of Stinging Nettles will keep a larder free from them.
http://www.botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/n/nettle03.html

 

OTHER NAMES:
Bichu, Burn Hazel, Burn Nettle, Burn Weed, Common Nettle, Devil’s Claw, Feuille d’Ortie, Graine d’Ortie, Grande Ortie, Great Stinging Nettle, Nettle Worth, Ortie, Ortie Brulante, Ortie des Jardins, Ortie Dioique, Ortie Mechante, Ortiga, Small Nettle, Urticae Herba et Folium, Urticae Radix.

 

 

Stinging Nettles as a Source of Food

Stinging Nettles, eaten by people of many countries, are known as ‘poor man’s spinach’. They are seen as edible – even tasty – when cooked, once the stingers have been dealt with. Eating them raw is not recommended.

“Stinging nettles are very nutritious. They have high levels of Vitamin A and Vitamin C. Young leaves should be picked between late February and early June, using scissors and gloves for comfort. Gather only the youngest leaves from the top of each plant… The very best nettles are the whole shoots picked when they are just a few centimetres high in March.”
Recipes: Nettle puree, Nettle Soup, Nettle Haggis

Richard Mabey, FOOD FOR FREE
Collins, 1972

 

Edible Wild Food is a website from Ontario, Canada that includes foraging, fungi & weeds. Recipes given are: Leek & Nettle Soup, Nettle Mustard Pesto, Nettle Pesto, Stinging Nettle Beer, Stinging Nettle Hummus, Stinging Nettle Soup
http://www.ediblewildfood.com/stinging-nettle.aspx

 

wildfoodshomegarden.com   This ‘practical guide using organic gardening methods’ from North America has advice on how to grow & harvest Stinging Nettles. The author, David G. Mills, goes into serious detail about how the taste of nettles is influenced by the location in which they are grown…
http://wildfoodshomegarden.com/StingingNettle.html

 

Herbal and Medicinal Lore

” Nettle is a wonderful plant and has been used for hundreds of years. It is highly nutritious, containing silicon, protein, potassium, chlorophyll and vitamins A and C. It is a great tonic for the whole body, especially for anaemic people or those recovering from illness. Due to its astringent properties, nettle is traditionally used to treat diarrhoea, dysentery and abnormal discharges and it is invaluable in chronic diseases of the colon. ”

http://happyherbcompany.com/nettle

 

An old Scots rhyme credited by Wikipedia to M & B Boland, OLD WIVES LORE FOR GARDENERS :

“Gin ye be for lang kail coo the nettle, stoo the nettle
Gin ye be for lang kail coo the nettle early
Coo it laich, coo it sune, coo it in the month o’ June
Stoo it ere it’s in the bloom, coo the nettle early
Coo it by the auld wa’s, coo it where the sun ne’er fa’s
Stoo it when the day daws, coo the nettle early.”

 Coo, cow, and stoo are all Scottish for cut back or crop (although, curiously, another meaning of “stoo” is to throb or ache), while “laich” means short or low to the ground. Given the repetition of “early,” presumably this is advice to harvest nettles first thing in the morning and to cut them back hard [which seems to contradict the advice of the Royal Horticultural Society].
Wikipedia

My dad made nettle beer from young nettles every spring. A basket of nettles, sugar, stick of rhubarb [Rheum], ginger [Zingiber] and yeast. He considered it a spring tonic and we drank it all before it had finished fermenting. It makes my mouth water thinking about it [Bevington, Gloucestershire, November 2013].”
Selected from approximately 200 items in PLANT-LORE ARCHIVE. Visit this page to see other tales of the Stinging Nettle :  http://www.plant-lore.com/239/nettle/

Urtification

” In ancient Egypt reports are found of the use of nettle infusion for the relief of arthritis and lumbago pains. A standard practice of flogging oneself with the fresh nettle plant, called urtification, was prescribed to treat such illnesses as chronic rheumatism, lethargy, coma, paralysis, and even typhus and cholera. This practice of urtification is known to many cultures and has been used for thousands of years. The Roman soldiers are said to have brought their own nettles to the British Isles to treat their tired, painful legs on long marches in the cold and wet climate by urtification, thus stimulating the circulation. Documentation or anecdotal reports of its use in this way have been found among the Ecuador Indians, ancient Romans, and Canadian and American native tribes. ”

DR CHRISTOPHER’S HERBAL LEGACY, Kassie Vance    http://herballegacy.com/Vance_History.html

 

The eating of the raw Stinging Nettle is not advised. In 1986, however, a competition arose in Marshwood, Dorset’s 16thC Bottle Inn which challenged the human’s ability to eat great quantities of the raw plant:

Bottle Inn, Marshwood, Dorset, 1585 . Photo Tripadvisor

WORLD STINGING NETTLE EATING CHAMPIONSHIP (Last held on 29 July 2017)
‘ In the United Kingdom an annual Stinging Nettle Eating Championship draws thousands of people to Dorset, where competitors attempt to eat as much of the raw plant as possible. Competitors are given 60 cm (20 in) stalks of the plant, from which they strip the leaves and eat them. Whoever strips and eats the most stinging nettle leaves in a fixed time is the winner. The competition dates back to 1986, when two neighbouring farmers attempted to settle a dispute about which had the worst infestation of nettles. ‘
(http://wildblessings.com/plants/stinging-nettle/ )

 

  William Langley gives a vivid description of the 2009 competition in The Telegraph:

‘ In a sunny garden in deepest Dorset yesterday 65 people – their faces rigid with pain and disgust – gathered in a quest to be crowned the King of the Stingers. There is no easy route to winning the World Stinging Nettle Eating Championship, held each year in the village of Marshwood near Bridport. It takes skill, it takes endurance … it takes great blistering chunks out of what used to be your taste buds. ‘
“They taste totally foul, and everything comes out bright green for a few days afterwards,” shrugged Simon Slee, 48, the reigning world record holder with 76 feet. “Apart from that it’s really not too bad. You need focus and rhythm and some beer to take the taste away.”
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/howaboutthat/5525806/World-Stinging-Nettle-Eating-Championship-attracts-record-crowd.html

( As of November 2017, there was a website offering 44 holiday cottage lets
within easy reach of the event:
https://duckduckgo.com/?q=dorset+44+cottages+stinging+nettle+eating&t=ffhp&ia=web )

 

Our Nettle Bucket

Nettle Bucket in winter

Nettle Bucket on solstice

Despite the Stinging Nettle’s antisocial reputation, its importance to wildlife means that we always keep some of this important wildflower in our garden.

We feel that any creatures using it as a source of food must be given the chance to complete their life cycle. Even if most of its leaves die back in winter, we want to maintain the plant itself. However, we do remove Urtica dioica’s flowers whenever they appear to prevent new seeds forming. Only a few nettles can be fitted into a small space before a trip into the garden becomes a world of hurt.

Our Stinging Nettle lives in its own Nettle Bucket; this is sited in a sunny corner & is now covered with a wrap of plastic to protect passing humans from those punishing spines. In October 2017, the undersides of the nettle’s leaves were peppered with orange dots – eggs laid by some local winged creature. The nettle leaves will provide the first food source for butterfly or moth larva hatching from those eggs.