Friday, April 29, 2011

Urtica dioica - Stinging Nettle

Urtica dioica - Stinging Nettle, also known as Burn Nettle, Burn Weed, Burn Hazel. The name Urtica is derived from the Latin, uro, to burn. Stinging Nettle has many hollow stinging hairs called trichomes on its leaves and stems, which act like hypodermic needles that inject histamine and other chemicals that produce a stinging sensation when contacted by humans and other animals. The plant has a long history of use as a medicine and as a food source.

Stinging Nettle is 3 to 7 ft tall in the summer and dying down to the ground in winter. It has widely spreading rhizomes and stolons, which are bright yellow as are the roots. The soft green leaves are 1 to 6 in long and have a strongly serrated edge. It bears numerous small greenish-brown flowers in dense axillary inflorescences. The leaves and stems are very hairy with both non-stinging and stinging hairs (trichomes), whose tips come off when touched, transforming the hair into a needle that will inject a mixture of chemical compounds that cause a painful sting or a sensation of "pins and needles."

Stinging Nettle is abundant in northern Europe and much of Asia, usually found in the countryside. It is not as widesprend in southern Europe and north Africa, where it is restricted by its need for moist soil. It is widely distributed throughout North America and in northernmost Mexico. It grows in abundance in the Pacific Northwest, especially in places where annual rainfall is high.

A folk remedy for rheumatism called Urtication, involves using Nettle by deliberately applying it to the skin in order to provoke inflammation, which provides temporary relief from pain. Extracts can be used to treat arthritis, anemia, hay fever, kidney problems, and pain. Other uses include treating gout, glandular diseases, poor circulation, enlarged spleen, diarrhea, and dysentery, worms, intestinal and colon disorders, and hemorrhoids. Nettles are usually used along with other herbs that target the affected organs.

German researchers are using nettle root extracts for prostate cancer, and Russian scientists are experimenting with nettle leaf tincture for hepatitis and gall bladder inflammation. Eating Nettle or drinking the tea makes your hair brighter, thicker and shinier, and makes your skin clearer and healthier, making it good for eczema and other skin conditions. Commercial hair and skin care products in health food stores often list stinging nettle as an ingredient.

Anti-itch drugs in the form of creams containing antihistaminics or hydrocortisone may provide some relief from the symptoms of Nettle sting, but due to the combination of chemicals involved, other remedies, like Calamine lotion, may be required. Many folk remedies exist for treating the itching including Horsetail (Equisetopsida spp.), leaf of Dock (Rumex spp.), Jewelweed, (Impatiens capensis and Impatiens pallida), the underside of a fern leaf (the spores), mud, saliva, or baking soda, oil and onions, and topical use of milk of magnesia.

Nettle is a great textile plant, the fibers in the stalks are stronger than flax and when spun and woven look similar to hemp. Up until 19th century nettle fibers were still being woven into household articles and fishing nets in Scotland.

Young plants were harvested by Native Americans and used as a cooked plant in spring when other food plants were scarce.  Stinging Nettle's flavor is similar to spinach when cooked and is rich in vitamins A, C, iron, potassium, manganese, and calcium. The leaves and flowers can be dried and make an herbal tea. At its peak, Stinging Nettle contains up to 25% protein, which is high for a leafy green vegetable.  Soaking Nettle in water or cooking it will remove the stinging chemicals from the plant, which should also be rinsed and strained through cheese cloth to remove loose stingers from the greens.  After Stinging Nettle enters its flowering and seed stages the leaves develop gritty particles called "cystoliths", which can irritate the urinary tract.

Nettle can be used in a variety of recipes, such as polenta and pesto.  Nettle soup is a common use of the plant, particularly in Northern and Eastern Europe.  Nettles are sometimes used in cheese making, for example in the production of Yarg and as a flavouring in varieties of Gouda.  Nettle cordial is a soft drink made largely from a refined sugar and water solution flavoured with the leaves of the nettle.  Historically it has been popular in North Western Europe; however, versions of a Nettle cordial recipe can be traced back to Roman times.  It is an aromatic syrup, and when mixed with sparkling water, is very refreshing.

As Old English "StiĆ°e," Nettle is one of the nine plants invoked in the pagan Anglo-Saxon Nine Herbs Charm, recorded in the 10th century. A quote from Aesop says "Gently touch a nettle and it'll sting you for your pains/Grasp it as a lad of mettle and soft as silk remains". The metaphor refers to the fact that if a Nettle plant is grasped firmly rather than brushed against, it does not sting so readily, because the hairs are crushed down flat and do not penetrate the skin so easily. In the German language, the idiom "sich in die Nesseln setzen", or "to sit in Nettles", means to get into trouble.

A European folktale tells of a woman whose brothers had been turned into swans. In order to return them to human form, she had to knit them coats of "unspoken" Nettles - the plants were harvested from a graveyard at night, and she was not permitted to speak to anyone until the coats were done. Nettle has been associated with death and burial customs, so it may be that this folktale is really describing death and resurrection rather than transformation from swans to men. 

Bronze Age burial cloths have been found that were woven of its fibers.  In the highlands and on the islands of Ireland, people believed that Nettles grew from the bodies of the dead.  In Denmark, people thought that Nettles grew from the blood of innocent victims. Welsh folk believed that if fresh Nettles put under the pillow of a sick person stayed green, the person would live, and if they turned yellow, that person would die.  The Iroquois said that Nettles mixed with the dried blood of a snake was witchcraft medicine.  Nettle is sometimes incorporated into rituals of ordeal.  Children who wished to study witchcraft in the Kawaiisu tribe had to walk through Nettles as practice.

In Ireland, Nettles marked the places where the Elves lived and could protect a person from sorcery. If cows were fed wilted Nettles, witches and trolls could not hex them to stop producing milk.  An old custom states that Nettle carried by a person protects them from lightning and draws money.

In the UK, 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.

Stinging Nettle has a number of other uses in the vegetable garden. Recent experiments have shown that Nettles may have some use as a companion plant by attracting beneficial insects. It contains a lot of nitrogen and is used as a compost activator and can be used to make a liquid fertiliser which is useful in supplying magnesium, sulphur and iron. It is also one of the few plants that can flourish in soils that are rich in poultry droppings.

Barely cover seeds to germinate in 10-14 days at room temperature. Start in spring. Transplant to full sun/partial shade, spacing transplants 8-12" apart. They are perennial down to -30F/-30C and can grow in warm climates as well. Plants can have male or female flowers, and they also reproduce through underground runners that can grow 5 ft per year, so be careful in situating them. Pick just before the flowers open. Wear heavy gloves and don't allow animals to romp in Nettles.

It is best to plant them in a container given their rampant nature anyhow, it can be a troubling weed, and mowing can increase plant density. Only regular and persistent tilling will greatly reduce its numbers.

Resourses include:
"Wildman" Steve Brill:
Alchemy Works:

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