Stinging Nettles: Storehouse of Nourishment & Healing

Progressive Health
Summer 2003

Stinging Nettles: Storehouse of Nourishment and Healing
by Stephen Hoog

"Permeation of the soil with a rational principle." This is the phrase that Rudolf Steiner, founder of Biodynamic Agriculture used to describe the energetic nature of stinging nettles. The herb is the basis of one of several specially prepared compost additives used by BD farmers to enhance the soil. Steiner felt that the inclusion of nettles in the pile meant that plants growing in the subsequent composted soil could be better able to select what they needed from that soil.

The perennial roots do not penetrate straight down (which might indicate more rationality) but meander according to the substratum, bringing up minerals to nourish the plant, human bodies and the topsoil. Nettles often grow in moist areas or places where damp vegetation is deposited. When the roots penetrate this organic matter, they tend to dry up the area.

Steiner also realized that the plant permeated other things as well. The greenish flowers, which bloom from June to September in temperate zones, are inconspicuous in the upper leaves; yet they project their pollen into the air. This establishes not a passive but very active form of wind pollination. The tiny stinging hairs along the stem seem harmless but can create a rash on the skin, which can burn for quite some time. Steiner saw that function followed energetics.

Beware of the sting

The stalk of the plant is erect (12-50 inches) and made up of fiber that, like hemp and flax, was used for cordage and cloth items. Its leaves grow opposite each other, and are dark green and evenly lightly serrated (indicating mineral content and some contracting force). The basal leaves are heart shaped (a heart contractor, perhaps?), but are narrower at the top. The first half of its Latin name urtica refers to the burning sensation caused by the hairs and dioica refers to separated male and female flower parts.

The unwary traveler through nature's garden who gets "stung" can use yellow dock, plantain or jewelweed growing nearby to soothe the affected area. Attitude is important here, too. Giving thanks to nettle for its wonderful gifts, honoring and respecting its potency and carefully reaching in to pick upward on the stem all minimize the burning sensation. Mind over pain also helps as well as gloves.

A nutritional storehouse

Both animals and humans can benefit from using stinging nettles as food, for it is a storehouse of nutrition. It contains the highest amount of protein, high amounts of chlorophyll, antioxidants, carotenes, selenium, iron and ample amounts of silica, zinc, calcium, potassium, boron and other mineral salts. It has lecithin, flavonoids—including quercetin—and organic acids like linolenic, linoleic and citric. Vitamins B2, C, K, folic acid and pantothenic acid round out its profile.

Dining on nettles

The young stems and leaves and the younger leaves at the top of older plants are generally the parts used for food. The stinging property is eliminated through the use of cooking. Raw food enthusiasts will have to settle for mildly heated decoction, nettle vinegars or capsule, tablet and tincture forms of this plant. Nettles can be steamed or boiled like any green and is often used whole or pureed in soups. It lends a nice flavor to creamy soups. Rice flour, onions, kombu, sweet potato, soy milk, corn miso and nettles would be one delicious combo. I put it into tofu quiche with onions, mushrooms, broccoli and white or yellow miso. It sautes well with leafy greens, most root vegetables and compliments the cabbage family with a dash of soy sauce and caraway seed. Euell Gibbons in his Stalking the Healthful Herbs offers recipes for pudding, juice, junket and beer. A brew of nettles, dulse, burdock, dandelion, yellow dock and plantain would create an iron-laden powerhouse.

An aid to men's and women's health

The nettle plant has a wide range of medicinal uses. It protects the lung and liver, enhances immune function, improves blood clotting and promotes thyroid and adrenal function. In Breast Health Susun Weed claims nettles can be used for reducing tumors, countering exhaustion, strengthening of blood vessels, regrowth of hair, increasing appetite, increasing lymphatic flow, protecting the lung (especially with radiation) and restoration of blood lost during surgery. Nettles has a tradition of use for allergies and a variety of respiratory problems with freeze-dried nettles being most effective for these conditions. It is purported to be valuable for weight loss. Its tannic acid provides astringency to help with healing wounds, cuts, burns and internal bleeding conditions. Nettles has cleansing, detoxifying and antiseptic properties, making it great for skin conditions. The root is used for its diuretic effect in arthritis and urinary tract infections and its ability to reduce symptoms of benign prostate hyperplasia.

Nettles exemplifies the nourishing and versatile bounty of nature's wild kingdom. It is a potential adversary or dependable ally. It may even help us humans to "permeate the soil with a rational principle."

Stephen Hoog, a Lehigh Valley resident and bodywork therapist,
has been studying and teaching wild foods for over two decades.

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