Plants of the Northwest -- Stinging Nettle Urtica dioica

“Tender-handed, stroke a nettle, And it stings you for your pains. Grasp it like a man of mettle, And it soft as silk remains”

What follows is from Brian King’s book Deviating from 68 degrees: A Hand Book for Thriving in the Wilderness Vol 1

My 2 Cents

You may see Stinging Nettle as a plant that should be avoided and eradicated, however once you get to know this plant and understand its importance for food, fiber, and medicine you just might cultivate it in areas of your landscape. A member of the nettle family (Urticaceae), stinging nettle has been a part of my diet for nearly 60 years and was a favored green by one of my children at a very young age. I have to laugh at myself for decades I would suffer its bite to get to a patch of dogbane to harvest for fiber not knowing that stinging nettle was actually a perfect fiber for my needs.

The Why and How of its Sting

The leaves and stems bear many stinging hairs whose tips break off with the slightest touch, turning the hair into a needle that injects several chemicals which produce nearly instantaneous discomfort: these include the neurotransmitters acetylcholine (which cause muscle contractions and is found in some ant, bee and wasp stings), histamine (which triggers the inflammatory response), serotonin (which makes us feel good and regulation of mood, appetite, sleep, as well as muscle contraction. Serotonin also has some cognitive functions, included in memory and learning), and formic acid (which is a major component of bee and ant stings). Yes that combination can give us pain, inflammation, and enough clarity of thought that we will have no doubt what caused the pain and we will not forget that this plant was the cause or your pain. Forgive me for being a bit anthropomorphic, but poison oak, and its other family members poison sumac, and poison ivy, have a different insidious strategy of making you retrace your steps in your memory over days to deduce the cause of your contact dermatitis.

Medicinal Uses of Stinging Nettle

But that same sting can relieve the pain of arthritis and other ailments. The tea has been used for centuries for allergies. There is a huge list of benefits from eating nettles.

Okay here is my disclaimer again, I am neither a doctor nor an herbalist, please consult a medical authority before using any herb or follow my musings. That being said, the following I have found true for me.

When stinging nettle comes into contact with a painful area of my body, pain is felt from the stinging nettle however, the net outcome is actually a decrease in the original pain. Here is the science behind what is happening, nettle does this by reducing levels of inflammatory chemicals in the body, and by interfering with the way the body transmits pain signals. Other data suggests that it fires many, most, or all of the pain synopsis in a given area all at one time this causes an acute pain. These synopsis can now no longer fire again until the synopsis can chemically reset giving respite from the chronic pain.

A tea made from the leaves is a diuretic therefore flushes urinary tract aiding treatment of infections in the urinary tract. It is shown to give relief in the early stages of an enlarged prostate. After having had the pleasure of kidney stones eating cooked stinging nettle greens and drinking its tea was an aide in getting things back in order. When fasting, I cook up a cup of the tender leaves each morning in two quarts of water. I eat the greens as my only meal for the day and drink the tea throughout the day. I find it does an incredible reset of my body and I do this for a week every 6 months. It works for me.
The nettle’s ability to reduce the amount of histamine the body produces in response to an allergen reduces the symptoms of allergies.

However, stinging nettle can also alter the effects of some drugs and thins the blood so again do your own research and consult your health practitioner.

Stinging Nettle as a Food

I first had these green in the early 70s steamed and was very surprised how good they were. A quick steaming or sauté and the sting is gone; use it like you would any cooked spinach dish, like in omelets, quiche, or meat dishes. I have it as a nice tea from fresh or dried leaves, fry it like potato chips, or roasted. With the guidance of a good mentor you can fold and roll up the leaf with the hairs in and eat them raw fresh and right out in the field. Or put the raw leaves in the blender to be chopped and the sting will go away and then it can be put into dips raw. When I see its fresh spring growth along the creek beds during a survival trip I know that I will not be going to bed hungry. On a “thrival” trip with RDNA and cultural mentoring participants it is safe to say it was nearly 98% percent of what we could find to eat; roasted, boiled, and raw. We were in need of protein but we were not hungry. Like many plants they are not so good after they start to flower and it is not much of a flower. It is said that the percent of silicates are rather high, however I have not seen any first order research on this topic.

Stinging Nettle for Fiber

Stinging nettle has another important use; in Europe and America the fibers were used to make cordage, rope, sailcloth, sacking, fishing nets, and fine cloth for thousands of years. Farming, hunting, fishing, industry, transportation, shelter, and clothing all used the fibers of stinging nettle. You most likely descended from those that were successful (lived at least long enough to assure the success of the next generation) because of the fibers of this plant. In good rich moist soil with full sun by the end of summer the tops were out of my reach. Those tall single stocks have a very thin hollow fiber that can make fine linen like cloth and string line for fishing and making nets. As I said before when looking for dogbane to make cordage, I was walking through the Stinging Nettle, that night a group of us were sitting around a camp fire making cordage everyone else was using stinging nettle and using exactly the same technique as I was using with the dogbane and the cordage they were making was comparable to mine and nettle is more abundant in some areas.

Harvesting Stinging Nettle for Fiber

To harvest stinging nettle for fiber depending on the biome I collect it from late spring through fall. Wearing gloves and long sleeves, and use a sharp knife. If you are working with others it is not a bad idea to wear an insect vail, having your face brushed by the plant is no fun. Harvest only stocks that are free of scars or insect damage. You can remove the tops at a point where the stock narrows to a diameter of less than a 1/2 inch to make them easier to transport. I don’t if I am going to ret them in a stream. I no longer remove the leaves before they have dried, I have found the stacks dry faster. When dry the leaves will break free without damaging the stocks. The leaves can be saved for tea.

Preparing the Stocks

Following what I said above I no longer remove the leaves before they have dried, I have found the stacks dry faster and the dry leaves will break free without damaging the stocks. You need them to dry without damage. Lay them to dry out in a dry shady area with good air flow do not pile them up or you will have compost. After they have dried to a point they will snap when bent they are ready to separate the fibers from the stocks. Dry, they tend not to sting however, you might want to take precautions. Scrape gently with an edge tool or with a medium grit sand paper off the outer surface to remove hairs, and leaves left. Why you see fibers you have scraped a bit too deep. Removing the Fibers: If you have known me for any length of time you will know that I will always tell you there is always more than one correct way to do any given task. This task is no different. I will share three ways I have done it all with great success. None is better than another.

You can beat it using a smooth stick on a smooth log along its length until it is pulverized to a point that everything has fallen away but the fibers.

An alternative method is to strike the stocks just enough so that the stocks split half way along its length starting in the middle. Now start at the base of the stock holding it between your thumb and index finger with about an inch sticking out with the pith towards you and karate chop it with the other hand. Continue to hold the stock in between the thumb and index finger and now peel the broken wood up and away from the fibers. Continue to hold the long stock with pressure between the thumb and index finger with the other hand pull the fibers over the index finger. You will develop a rhythm and this task will go quickly. Now rub and roll the fibers between your hands to clean the fibers of debris.

The third method I like when I have the time and a stream, this is called fresh water retting. I orientate the stocks all in the same direction in to bundles, fold back the narrow end and form a sheet bend with some para cord and tie them off so as not to get washed away and place them in the stream to get good action in mildly turbulent water. In a week’s time much of the work has been done for me by the water.

A fourth simply leave the stocks exposed to the dew or landscaping sprinklers until the fibers can easily separate free.

Making the Cordage

Making the Cordage One way to make cordage is to do a reverse wrap. Take about a dozen fibers and fold them not quite in the middle and hold them in between the thumb and forefinger of your left hand. Hold them so that half of the fibers are away from you. Take those fibers in between the thumb and forefinger of the right hand and twist them to the right like you are screwing in a light bulb then bring them over the top of the fibers closest to you and grasp them with the thumb and forefinger of the left hand. Continue this until you are about 2 inches or more from the end the shortest fibers, place another length of fibers placing them about 4 inches form their center in the crotch of your wrap with those that are under the near strands and over the far stands, and twist more fibers into your cord and continue on your way.

In time you will develop a rhythm to this and make 6 feet of cord in short order. As you develop skills you will start to find that your string and cordage looks as nice as any coming from the store and in many cases stronger. During the teens summer camp those that get into this can make enough to go fishing in about a week of sit-spots.

You can also roll two strands together but separated with a bit of space on your leg starting near your hip and stopping at your knee put in the two strands together rolling them back to your hip together. This is a bit more difficult to do but once the technique is mastered a lot of string can be made fast. Drop spindle can also be employed for this to make single strand threads and of course a spinning wheel can be used but that is out of the realm of essentials of survival and in a different volume.

"Better to be a nettle in the side of your friend than his echo."
—Ralph Waldo Emerson
"My friend John Baynes used to say that the man who published a book without an index ought to be damned ten miles beyond Hell, where the Devil could not get for stinging nettles."
—Francis Douce