Vol. 16 Issue 1, Spring 2011
By Ryan Robinson
The stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) is a curious plant, capable of causing extreme pain while also providing beneficial medicinal properties.
Common throughout the world, the highest concentrations can be found in Europe and North America. We find them in our moist woodlands, thickets, by waterways, and along partially shaded trails — pretty much anywhere in the woods and trails we hike in Loudoun County.
The stinging nettle looks like a typical weed. It ranges from two-to four feet tall, has a slender stalk and opposite leaves. Stinging nettle flowers are greenish brown and born on axillary inflorescences.
The dull, green leaves can grow up to six inches long and are covered in hair. These hairs are actually small hypodermic needles that inject irritating chemicals into unsuspecting skin contacting with the hairs. This mixture of chemicals causes the painful stinging sensation for which the plant is named.
Stinging caused by the plant is comparable to multiple bee stings and often causes a rash. Although no serious or permanent damage comes from the sting, it is important to treat oneself as soon as possible to avoid further discomfort. One reported treatment comes from the leaf of jewelweed (Imatients capensis), which can be rubbed on the irritated area to provide quick relief. Hikers are fortunate jewelweed often can be found growing near stinging nettle. Once back at home, the affected area should be gently cleansed. Be careful not to touch the rash with your bare hands as it is possible to spread it to other parts of the body. Aloe vera or a comparable ointment can reduce the stinging.
Although the stinging nettle’s ability to sting gives it a bad reputation, it also has many beneficial uses. Nettles have been used for over 2000 years in a variety of ways. Flagellation with nettles was said to reduce inflammation and pain — perhaps because the patient was so distracted by the pain from the stinging nettles! Today, plant extracts are used to treat arthritis, anemia, hay fever, prostate and kidney problems. Stinging nettle is said to strengthen all the systems of the body and to taste like spinach when cooked. Nettles can be prepared in soups and used to make tea and beer. Stinging nettle plants contain a tough fiber which can be used to make fabric. In the wild, stinging nettles play host to several varieties of insects and provide food for woodland creatures.
While we may not want to introduce stinging nettles into our yards or gardens, these beneficial plants play an important role in our ecology, pharmacy and kitchen. Just be careful to make sure you don’t brush up against them while enjoying our beautiful walking trails this spring!