An encounter with stinging nettle, Urtica urens.

I decided to do a spot of weeding this morning, it is cool and overcast  – perfect weather for gardening.  Not a lover of garden gloves  I like to garden ‘au-naturel’ –  please don’t get me wrong I only bare my hands! All was going well and I was making great progress until I grabbed a clump of weeds,  – the first sensation is the feeling of being stung by a horde of angry bees or bitten by red ants. On closer inspection I found the culprit – a stinging nettle!

The leaves and stems are covered with tiny hypodermic needles which resemble hairs all over their surface. These silica-laden trichomes contain a cocktail of histamine and acetylcholine as well as tartaric, oxalic and formic acid which is irritatingly injected into the skin of anyone who touches it.  Even accidentally brushing against the plant is enough to inflict stings, and the pain could last a whole day. You may have heard of Urticaria (Hives) a skin condition caused by allergies, now you know where the name is  derived from.

Hard to believe this horrid weed has a number of good properties. It can be eaten as a vegetable, is high in vitamin A and C and also rich in calcium and iron. Stinging nettle also has a number of medicinal properties, including some anti-bacterial and anti-cancer properties. Poultices of nettle tea are said to soothe aching joints, and nettle has been used to treat urinary problems and offer some relief from hay fever.

Probably the most famous medicinal use of stinging nettle is for treating arthritis. The stinging seems to stimulate blood flow to afflicted areas when locally applied.  I guess the pain inflicted by the plant makes you forget about all other aches and pains!

If you fear the stinging powers of the nettle, be assured, they are swiftly destroyed through cooking or drying. Once defanged, the stinging nettle makes for a gentle and ancient medicine, delicious “tea,” and culinary ingredient mentioned in The Bible and by authors prior.

Urtica urens:  from Latin “urere”, means to burn.  It  is an annual, growing up to 75 cm tall, branching at the base. Clusters of small, greenish-white flowers form where leaves join stems. The seed leaves are round or slightly elongated with smooth edges and a notch in the tip. First true leaves and all later leaves have distinctly toothed edges.  Seed can remain viable for 20-100 years in the soil. Emergence is enhanced by soil disturbance and mostly occurs from within the top 2.5 cm of soil.