Nettle is a plant known by several names including nettle leaf, common nettle and stinging nettle. Its botanical name is urtica dioica. Originally, this plant is native to Europe, western North Africa and temperate Asia. But now a days it can be found pretty much anywhere in the world.
What is Nettle?
There are six subspecies of urtica which vary between their places of origin and their appearance. Not all of these plants have stinging hairs. There is a European variety with no stringing hair and one from southwest and Central Asia that can have or not.
This perennial plant (grows for more than one year) varies in height from 1 to 2 meters (3 to 7 feet). Leaves are green and soft, growing between 3 to 15 centimeters (1 to 6 inches) in length. Their borders are serrated and the tips are longer than the laterals. Leaves and stems are very hairy (some sting and some don’t).
Those that have stinging hairs have to be manipulated with gloves since the hair turns into a needle that can inject chemicals, including histamine, serotonin and acetylcholine. This produces an inflammatory effect on the skin that cause a painful sting because of contact dermatitis. People have to use antihistamines or hydrocortison creams to alleviate the pain. The condition called urticaria (meaning hives) comes from the Latin name for nettle.
Should you Grow Nettle?
Nettle is considered to be a weed by many. Even if mowing can increase the plant density. To control it you need to do regular and persistent tilling since they have a very robust root system and tugging them won’t work. Chemical or natural herbicides can also be used. I do not recommend to use chemical herbicides since vinegar will do the job just fine.
If you see nettle growing naturally in your garden, you can be assured that you have high quality soil. They prefer phosphorus-rich and nitrogen rich soils that have recently been aerated, which are obviously quite fertile. This plant can live in a wide range of pH levels, from 5.0 to 8.0 and in soils with lots of poultry droppings.
Many use it as a compost activator since it has nitrogenous compounds. It can also be used to make a liquid fertilizer containing iron, sulphur and magnesium.
Nettle is a great companion plant for plants that are vulnerable to aphid attacks such as roses, cucumbers, beans and tomatoes. This is one of the few plans that has no problems with pests and diseases. It can also help reduce pests in surrounding crops. Nettle attracts beneficial insects and butterflies.
How to Grow Nettle?
Those growing nettle for medicinal purposes may want to grow it a container or raised bed to try to get it to stay in one place. It can live in a sunny area as well as in partial shade. You can buy nettle plants from a nursery, try to collect them from your area or divide an existing patch of roots.
If starting from seeds, put 1-3 seeds in a pot and cover with 1/4 inch of soil. Make sure the soil stays moist and wait between 10-14 days for germination. Harden them for a week before transplanting at least 12 inches apart. Nettle does not like the cold so make sure to wait till the weather is suitable if sowing outdoors.
This “weed” requires very minimal care, however dry soil will cause the plant to struggle and you won’t get the flavor or potency of nettle as a herbal remedy. Leaf mulch can help if you are getting little rain. After harvesting you can stop taking care of them. Cut the flower seed heads to make them grow better and reduce the risk of spreading.
How to Harvest Nettle
You will need to wait between 80-90 days for nettle to mature if planting from seed. Harvest tender leaves, just take the top four since the rest of the plant contains too much fiber. Make use to use gloves and long sleeve shirts when harvesting since you do not want to get stung!
Leaves and Stems
All of the nettle plant has medicinal purposes. Leaves with stems can be harvested before blooming. Harvest the top third of the plant, just above a node where the leaves branch out to encourage new growth. Leaves will have better flavor if harvested before flowering.
Flowers can be cut, as well as the seeds which is the last to occur. Cut the flowering tips of the nettle (between 20-30 centimeters) and dry them in a herb drier (lowest temperature possible for 12-18 hours) or in a shady and airy place with no moisture. They will become brittle so store them inside a paper bag in a dry and dark place.
Those living in more temperate climates can harvest the roots of stinging nettle after the first mists, usually around November in the Northern Hemisphere and May in the Southern Hemisphere. These roots, called rhizomes that are the underground stems of the plant, are where nettle stores its reserve substance during winter.
After digging them up, make sure to wash them and let them dry in a warm room. Best if they are exposed to sunlight. After they have dried store them in a cloth bag. They will become very brittle, making dry sounds when they break.
How to Use Nettle?
Nettle fiber has been used for over 3,000 in Europe to make clothing. Ancient textiles from the Bronze Age have been found in Denmark. This plant is still being used for textiles by companies in Germany, Italy and Austria. Its bast fiber is used for the same purposes as linen and is produced by a similar netting process. Its main advantage is that it grows easily and does not need pesticides. However, the fibers are coarser. Roots produce a yellow dye, while the leaves create a yellowish green tone.
This herb can also be used in the kitchen similar to spinach. Native Americans would cook young plants when food was scare. Soak stinging nettles in water or cook them to remove stinging chemicals. It is rich in vitamins and nutrients and can have up to 25% protein content, which is quite high. Nettle is used in smoothies, pesto, puree, polenta, soups, cheese, and pastry. Fresh nettle leaves will last between 2-5 days if stored in a closed container in the refrigerator. Dry leaves are also used to make nettle tea which has a lot of health benefits. It can also be used to make an alcoholic beer.