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Foraging Friday: Stinging Nettles (Urtica dioica)

For centuries, this wild miracle plant has been used in numerous ways throughout many countries and cultures worldwide. Most commonly, nettles have been eaten, used as topical medicine, and consumed as a mineral rich tea. The fibers of its stem have been used to make a strong cloth, similar to that of hemp or flax. In folklore, the plant has been used as a talisman that is sprinkled around the home to ward off evil, or carried in a sachet to repel curses. Late herbalist Michael Moore even claimed that nettle seed oil could be used on the scalp to stimulate hair growth. And some people swear by stinging their joints with nettle hairs for the treatment of arthritis.

Around 50 species of the Urticaceae family exist worldwide. Urtica comes from the Latin verb urere, meaning to burn. This is in reference to the plant’s notorious stinging hairs. The two main species of the plant are U. dioica and U. urens. Dioca comes from the botanical term dioecious, which refers to a species that has either only male or female flowers on each plant. Both of these species are native to Eurasia and Africa, but have become naturalized in North America, South America and Australia.

The species most often found in North America is Urtica dioica ssp. gracilis, a perennial plant that loves moist areas, growing largely along streams and marshes from sea level to 10,000 feet. Its habit is two to six feet, with ovate serrated leaves that are heart-shaped at the base and square stems, bearing green flowers in long clusters. And famously, it’s covered in those pesky stinging hairs that irritate the skin when touched.

The leaves of this bristly plant are high in a number of vitamins and minerals, including A, B complex, C, E, K, folic acid, histamine, acetylcholine, formic acid, acetic acid and butyric acid. The notorious hairs are made of silica and inject neurotransmitters such as acetylcholine, histamine, 5HTP, moroidin, and leukotrienes into the skin. Not only that, but the root also contains numerous anti-inflammatory compounds: phytosterols, pentacyclic triterpenes, lignans, coumarin, ceramides, hydroxy fatty acids, polysaccharides, lectins, tannins, alcohols, monoterpenes and triterpenes. And the seed contains volatile oils and formic acid.

Boiling the leaves neutralizes the stinging hairs, leaving you with a delicious and nutritious green. Harvest young leaves in spring before the plant flowers – gloves are highly recommended. After cooking, you can remove the stems. A little olive oil, lemon and salt are wonderful compliments.

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