Spotlight on Nettle

Origins | Description | Qualities | History | Cultivation | Harvesting
Culinary Uses | Magical Uses | Other Uses | Quotes


'Nettle in, dock out.
Dock rub nettle out!'



Latin name(s) - Urtica urens, Urtica dioica
aka - common nettle, stinging nettle, lesser nettle, devil's leaf, devil's plaything, tanging nettle
Family - Urticacea
Parts used - Whole herb and seeds.
Purported actions - astringent, diuretic, tonic
Methods of use - Infusion, expressed juice, seeds dried

Origins - Nettles are native in all  the temperate regions of the world and there are around 500 species, but this page concentrates on the British species of stinging nettle.

Description - Stinging nettles are a wild perennial herb. It has heart shaped, finely toothed leaves and green flowers in long clusters. Both male and female flowers can be found on the same stem, but mostly each plant will have one or the other as the plant is wind fertilised. The male flowers come in loose sprays, while the female flowers are more densely packed. The whole plant is covered in a fine down and hairs that sting. These hairs are hollow and at their base is a set of cells which contain formic acid, it is this which causes painful irritation and inflammation when touched. It flowers from June to September and grows to almost a metre high.

Attributed medicinal qualities - Nettles contain high levels of potassium and iron. It has been used as a diuretic, and against kidney infections. It has a good reputation as a blood purifier, and is said to aid coagulation and haemoglobin production in red blood cells, treating anemia, and reducing menstruation. Some say it can alleviate allergic reactions and can be used as a depressor of the central nervous system. Other uses are for the relief of rheumatic pain and arthritis. It also inhibits bacteria, treats childhood eczema and mild acne. It has also been used to alleviate sneezing and itching and the symptoms of asthma.

History - The genus name Urtica comes from the Latin verb "uro" which means "to burn". The species name "dioica" means "two houses" because the plant can have male or female flowers. The common name nettle- is thought to have derived from the Anglo-Saxon "netel" which is said to have come from "noedl" meaning needle. It is not known whether this is because of its sting or that nettles supplied thread before the use of flax. Bronze Age burial cloths have been found that were woven of its fibers and in Andersons fairy tale "The Princess and the eleven swans" the coats were woven from nettles. When Germany and Austria ran short of cotton during the First World War, the value of the nettle was remembered, and the two ordinary species, U. dioica and U. urens, the great and the smaller nettle, were used.

Nettle has been used for a very long time. Romans would use nettles to whip their legs to improve circulation, and beating the body with nettles has been a popular remedy for rheumatism for many years. The roots and stems are fibrous, similar to hemp or flax, and were used for a variety of purposes from making sacking to fine cloth, it was also made into paper. The juice from nettles was used to make a bright green or yellow dye.

In Ireland, nettles grew where the elves lived and were thought to protect a person from sorcery. If cows were fed wilted nettles, they could not be hexed them to stop producing milk.

In Scotland nettles were used for their coagulating properties, to make wooden drinking vessels and tubs watertight.

Cultivation - Basically the nettle is considered a weed, most people don't bother to cultivate them. They have a perennial root system that spreads quickly and makes it very difficult to eradicate once it's established. You can collect seeds from the wild and then divide roots at any time of the year. It is possible to  "earth up" the plants to blanch them like seakale.

Harvesting, preparation and storage - Use gloves and a knife or scissors when harvesting, if you do get stung rub the affected area with dock leaves which usually grow close by or with rosemary, mint or sage leaves.

The whole herb can be collected in May and June, just before coming into flower, and dried in bunches or frozen. Collect seeds when they are ripe.

Culinary Uses - Nettle leaves can be used as a tasty vegetable, like spinach. For cooking, pick leaves that are still young and tender, older leaves tend to be bitter. Wash the leaves and then cook them like spinach - no added water, then chop or sieve them and serve with a little salt, pepper and butter. In Scotland they are used with leeks, broccoli and rice to make Nettle pudding.

Magical Uses - Welsh folklore says that if fresh nettles are put under the pillow of a sick person and they stay green, the person will live, but if they turn yellow, that person will die.

Other Uses - Nettles can be made into natural dyes.

Hens can be given nettle seed in their food to improve their condition and encourage them to lay.

The seeds can also be used to provide oil for burning.

It is often fed to horses and cattle to improve the condition of their coat, but only when cut and allowed to wilt (thus losing its power to sting).

A bunch of nettles will keep away flies and growing them near beehives will keep away frogs.

Nettles have also been made into hair tonics or lotions.

Juice from the nettle can be used as a vegetarian substitute for rennet.


Culpeper - "Nettle-tops eaten in the spring consume the phlegmatic superfluities in the body of man, that the coldness and moistness of Winter hath left behind."

Campbell - 'In Scotland, I have eaten nettles, I have slept in nettle sheets, and I have dined off a nettle tablecloth.

Victor Hugo - "One day he (Monsieur Madeleine) saw some peasants busy plucking out Nettles; he looked at the heap of plants uprooted and already withered, and said - "They are dead. Yet it would be well if people knew how to make use of them. When the nettle is young, its leaf forms an excellent vegetable; when it matures, it has filaments and fibres like hemp and flax. Nettle fabric is as good as canvas. Chopped, the nettle is good for poultry; pounded it is good for cattle. The seed of the nettle mingled with fodder imparts a gloss to the coats of animals; its root mixed with salt produces a beautiful yellow colour. It is besides excellent hay and can be cut twice. And what does the nettle require? Little earth, no attention, no cultivation. Only the seed falls as it ripens, and is difficult to gather. That is all. With a little trouble, the nettle would be useful; it is neglected, and becomes harmful."