In North America, there are over 500 varieties that grow. They mostly grow, though, in the Pacific Northwest: they are not common in Eastern North America. There are two main varieties on the West Coast: one called “greater”, which grows up to 10 feet tall (3 metres), and a “lesser” one, which grows a foot tall (30 cm.) Some people actually cultivate the lesser one. Stinging Nettles are also uncommonly prolific in England, where children call them “stingers.”
Stinging Nettles grow in patches in shady areas, especially disturbed areas such as the edges of fields. They propagate both by seed and roots. They start growing early in the spring and flower before spring is over. Some plants produce male flowers, others produce female flowers.
The leaves are round at one end, and tapered and pointed at the other, with serrated edges. The leaves have hollow hairs on them which contain an irritating chemical called “formic acid”, a histamine, which causes a sting that feels just like a bee-sting. The hairs break easily; when just barely brushed they break and release the chemical. The sting is fierce. Animals such as cows and horses know instinctively not to munch on these plants. Some types of Stinging Nettles in Asia can irritate your skin for months.
Though at this point you may be itchy just from reading about Stinging Nettles, they have actually been consumed by people throughout history.
The chemical that causes the stinging can be destroyed by drying, or by applying heat to them, either through boiling or sautéing. The young leaves can be cooked up fresh like Spinach. They can also be dried and powdered, then used to make tea with. Nettles porridge is an oatmeal gruel to which chopped Nettles are added. Nettles pudding is a boiled, savoury pudding with meat in it.
Cornish Yarg Cheese is wrapped in Nettles. Beer can also be made, using Nettles in place of hops.
Nettles are used in many folk medicines.
Never use Stinging Nettles fresh and uncooked. To destroy the chemical with heat, the leaves need to be blanched or sautéed for at least a minute.
You must always wear gloves when harvesting or handling Stinging Nettles. You harvest the young leaves at the top of the stalks in the spring, before the plant flowers. After that, the leaves get very coarse and mealy and for your pains, reward you by acting as a laxative and diuretic. Ideally, the stalks shouldn’t be more than a few inches high. Avoid those growing by roads that may have picked up pollution. Tear the leaves off of the stalks and discard the stalks. Wash well, because they often harbour ants, caterpillars and small files.
When cooked, Stinging Nettles taste a bit bitter, like spinach does. To some people, they taste something like snow peas.
Many health claims are made about Nettles, but none should be taken into account without consulting a doctor. Extracts are used in folk medicine for prostate disorders and as an anti-inflammatory. Old leaves can act as a laxative and diuretic.
Eating fresh Nettles is generally advised against.
You can freeze uncooked Stinging Nettles for up to a year (but when you thaw them, don’t touch them with unprotected hands — freezing won’t destroy the chemical, only drying or heat will).
Stinging Nettles are native to Europe, Asia and the Americas. As a food item, they have historically been a “poor people’s” food. They were more appreciated as a medicine.
Stinging Nettles may have been brought to Britain by the Romans. The Romans would cultivate them in gardens for food and medicine. Ordinary Romans would use them as a pot herb, and wrap cheeses in the leaves.
Literature & Lore
“So he went away, and I with Luellin to Mr. Mount’s chamber at the Cockpit, where he did lie of old, and there we drank, and from thence to W. Symons where we found him abroad, but she, like a good lady, within, and there we did eat some Nettles porrige, which was made on purpose to-day for some of their coming, and was very good.” — Samuel Pepys, Monday, 25 February 1660.
(In the following old children’s rhyme, “Hitty Pitty” means Nettles.)
Hitty Pitty within the wall,
Hitty Pitty without the wall;
If you touch Hitty Pitty,
Hitty Pitty will bite you.
“I am whipp’d and scourg’d with rods, Nettlesd, and stung with pismires (ants), when I hear of this vile politician”. — Henry IV Part 1. Act 1. Scene 3. Shakespeare.
There is a “branch” of botany called “sado-botany”, in which certain plants are used for S&M sex. Nettles, understandably, are highly esteemed in this branch of human experience. There is even a term used, “nettle play” or “urtication” to be more academic. The discipline of Odette by “Jean Martinet” apparently mentions Nettles being used as whips. Enthusiasts also put them inside underwear.
The World Nettles Eating Championship is held every June in Marshwood (near Bridport), Dorset, England at the time of the Summer Solstice.
The contest, sponsored by The Bottle Inn, began in 1986. Contestants are given stalks of fresh Nettles two feet long (60 cm). They have to eat as many stalks as possible in 1 hour. To count as eaten, every single leaf from a stalk must be eaten.
The Anglo-Saxons called Stinging Nettles “wergulu”; it was one of their nine sacred herbs.
There is a village in Hertfordshire, England called “Nettlesden”, earlier called “Neteleydene”, from the Anglo-Saxon meaning “valley where Nettles grow”.
Nettles comes from the Anglo-Saxon word “netele”, which may in turn have come from a very old Germanic word “natilon”.
The word “urtica”, which is part of the scientific name and the word that Romans used for the plant, comes from the Latin verb “urere”, meaning to burn.
Though some mint varieties have Nettles in their names (Hedge-Nettle, Dead-Nettle, etc), they aren’t actually Nettles.