10 Neat Things: About Nettles

1. Hypodermic needle, anyone?

Image: Jerome Prohaska, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Long before man came up with the idea of injecting our bodies with chemicals, the stinging nettle had already invented the delivery mechanism. Tiny hairs located on the stems and leaves of nettles are hollow like hypodermic needles. The hairs are stiffened by silica and have a little bulb at the base that contains the chemicals. When you brush against them, the tips break off, injecting you with the stinging substances.

2. The poisonous payload.

Image: Frank Vincentz, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

It used to be thought that formic acid was the main constituent of the sting, but recent studies have identified histamine, acetylcholine (it attacks our central nervous system) and 5-hydroxytryptamine (serotonin) as well as miniscule amounts of moroidin (a peptide found in the Australian gympie-gympie tree, whose sting is so dangerous it can kill a horse) and leukotrienes (inflammatory mediators) as the culprits.

3. Yeah, but I eat this stuff.

In spite of all its evil ways, the nettle is actually a very useful plant. People make nettle soup and even nettle beer. Nettle stems and leaves, picked in springtime and boiled, are said to taste like minty spinach and are full of good things, including more protein than most green plants and three times more fibre and calcium than kale. Boiling neutralizes the chemicals.

4. Nettles in medicine.

Nettles have a long list of medical properties that infuse the roots as well as the above-ground parts. Teas made from the roots were used as a diuretic and for urinary tract problems. The above-ground parts are associated with relief from osteoarthritis, muscle aches and pains and allergies. Nettle seeds were also thought to be useful in treating bites from mad dogs.

5. Urtica dioica

Image: Migas assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

For all word nerds, Urtica dioica is derived from the Latin, urere, to burn, and dioica, two houses, because the male and female plants are separate. However, some people think that the English word “nettle” may have come from noedl, meaning needle. Still others think it may have derived from nere, a Latin verb meaning “to sew”.

6. Useful native plant.

Image: Krzysztof Ziarnek Kenraiz, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

So many of our most useful plants seem to have been imported from Europe or Asia, but Urtica dioica is a North American native that is useful for more than food and medicine. The stems are also used in making ropes, fishing nets and snares. At one time, nettles were dried and fed to livestock. In Europe, the European cousin, Urtica urens, is used to make the green agent E-140 in food colouring.

7. It’s a traveller.

If you deliberately plant nettles in your garden, they will soon take it over. They travel underground via stoloniferous rhizomes, sending up new stems from their roots. They also produce lots of seeds to start new plants. In the wild, you will find them in ditches and alongside roads. They prefer nitrogen-rich soils.

8. Ouch! Ouch! Ouch!

If you get stung, try not to do anything for at least 10 minutes. Don’t rub or scratch. Then the spot can be washed with soap and water to remove the chemicals which will have dried on your skin. If you are very sensitive and can’t wait, you can try removing the tiny needles with masking tape. If that fails, try soothing the site by dabbing it with a baking soda and water paste. And of course, there is the usual assortment of commercial products. Cold compresses can provide some relief. Avoid heat.

9. A hair of the dog.

Image: Wikihow

It is said that you can relieve the sting by rubbing the area with nettle root, should you happen to have some at hand. Jewelweed (wild impatiens or touch-me-not) is also recommended as an antidote (incidentally, jewelweed is also a good antidote for poison ivy). Just rub its juicy stems on the affected parts.

10. Butterfly charm.

Photo © Derek Harper (cc-by-sa/2.0)

Members of the Nymphalidae butterfly family (also called brush-footed butterflies because their front legs are covered with tufts of hair) rely on nettles to feed their larvae. This family includes the red admiral and the eastern comma butterflies.

– Dorothy Dobbie Copyright©
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