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Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Stinging Nettles, an Herbal Pharmacy


Stinging Nettles (Urtica dioica), a herbaceous perennial found almost worldwide is an undervalued and misunderstood plant. Many of us discovered this plant the hard way and probably cursed its very existence. Brushing up against stinging nettles results in a sting you won't soon forget. The leaves and stems are covered with brittle, hollow, silky hairs that contain three chemicals, a histimine that irritates skin, acetylcholine which causes the burning feeling and serotonin. But once one learns the plant's value and proper ways of handling it, it can become a medicinal and vegetable dish favorite. 

Nettles are a foraging favorite for those seeking out the nourishing spring greens. They cannot be eaten raw, but used in tea form or cooked like spinach, you can just taste the green energy. The stingers are deactivated by cooking, steeping, or drying, but not by juicing. 

According to food forager, "Wildman" Steve Brill, this natural source of green energy is good for rebuilding the system of chronically ill people. Many of the benefits are due to the plant's very high levels of minerals, amino acids and they're 10 percent protein, more than any other vegetable. For health purposes, nettles are known as a kidney and adrenal ally, great for removing toxins from the blood, reducing inflammation, help with eczema, and are a traditional food for people with allergies. When skin and hair are a problem, nettles can come to the rescue for restoring balance and vitality. Tired all the time? Add nettles to your diet.

To gather nettles, you must wear long pants and use gloves so when you touch them you can avoid the nasty sings. Best when gathered while tender and young, April and May are the best months to cut and harvest the plant. After they flower, the leaves may be bad for the kidneys. If you cut the plants back midsummer, you will have time for another harvest before frost. Just take a hedge shears and cut down to about six inches off the ground. It will grow right back.

As with most greens, nettles will cook down a great deal, so for eating as a cooked vegetable you need to cut a large quantity. A good way to gather such an amount is to use one of those circular, collapsible, mesh hampers. Cut and toss the plants into the hamper for as little chance of skin contact as possible.

Below is a tasty recipe borrowed from Matt and Betsy who have the very informative site: DIY Natural. 

(makes 2 - 3 servings)

Gather 8 cups fresh stinging nettles, rinse and chop into smaller pieces
  (wear gloves when handling nettles and use tongs to rinse them)
1/2 cup spring onions
2 - 3 crushed garlic cloves
2 tbsp butter
2 tbsp bacon fat
  (Bacon adds a great taste to greens. Fry bacon and save for another time or use bacon in this recipe in place of the ham)
1/2 cup ham cubes (optional)
1 cup noodles, uncooked
salt, pepper, additional garlic powder to taste
freshly grated parmesan cheese

Boil water and cook the noodles. Strain, add a little olive oil to prevent sticking, and set aside.
Melt butter and bacon fat in large skillet. Over medium heat, saute onions and garlic gloves until soft (add garlic after onions are half cooked to avoid burning them)
Using tongs, carefully add nettles to skillet with onions and garlic and saute until cooked down.
Add ham, if desired, and noodles. Toss together to combine.
Season with salt, pepper and additional garlic powder if desired and top with parmesan cheese.


Next time you are feeling run down or miserable with spring allergies, think of this delicious dish as an idea for dinner. Follow with an energy restoring cup of hot nettle tea.

For more food recipes utilizing nettles

Nettles are good for you inside and out!

 Next time you reach for the oil and vinegar as dressing for your salad, think about a wonderful way to increase the nutritional value of that dressing. A good quality extra-virgin olive oil is the oil of choice but did you know you can turn an ordinary vinegar into an extraordinary source of minerals?

In the Wise Woman tradition ("Healing Wise" by Susan Weed), it is claimed that we can improve our health by allying ourselves with common, abundant wild plants, the weeds. Called the green allies because they can become our closest friends in terms of supplying our bodies with what we need for good metabolism, strong bones and vitality. The minerals in plants are water soluble therefore in a form easily absorbed by our bodies.

Herbal vinegars are a wonderful way to put up herbs for later use.  Natural vinegars, preferably raw with the mother (Bragg's vinegar is a good one), are especially effective for extracting the mineral richness of plants.  Be sure pesticide or herbicide hadn't been used on the area you choose to gather your plants. Wait until late morning after the sun has dried the night dampness and using a kitchen shears snip the leaves leaving behind the plant to regrow (if desired). You don't want to pull the whole plant out of the ground and have the mess of dirt clinging to the leaves. Remember to use gloves when dealing with nettles.

When you have enough plant material to fill a mason jar spread it out on a baking sheet for an hour or so to not only dry a bit more but to give any bugs a chance to exit. Using the kitchen shears cut the leaves, stems and flowers into smaller pieces to expose more surface area to the vinegar.  Pour the vinegar over the plant material to fill the jar and cover the plant material. Using a chopstick or wooden spoon (vinegar reacts with metal so don't use a metal spoon), push down the herbs to fully mix and release air bubbles. Then top off with more vinegar. Cap tightly with a plastic lid (don't use a metal lid) and let sit  for about six weeks. The location for the jar should be somewhere you won't forget about it since the jar should be shaken daily, but in a cool spot away from exposure to direct sunlight.

By six weeks the plant material will be pretty much used up and it is ready to strain. The easiest way to strain is to put a funnel into the opening of another jar or bottle and lay cheesecloth or a metal strainer over the funnel. Then pour the vinegar through and discard the plant material into the compost bin if you have one. Herbal vinegars don't have to be refrigerated but it is best to use up within a year for the greatest potency from the herbs. Besides, you will probably want to make a fresh batch every spring anyway.

 Besides using your nettle vinegar on your salad, it makes for a wonderful herbal hair rinse to remove build-up of styling products and restore shine.
The addition of herbs to the vinegar allows the rinse to enhance hair color, help bring out desired highlights, and condition hair at the same time.

 Many of our hair care products are strongly alkaline and cause a dulling buildup on the hair shaft.
Healthy hair is on the mildly acidic side of the pH scale between 4.5 and 5.5. Apple cider vinegar has an acidic pH of 2.9. Apple cider vinegar rinses help to balance the pH and remove buildup, giving you a softer, shinier, easier to detangle head of hair. Rinsing will close the hair shafts resulting in a smoother surface. By closing the cuticles of the hair, light reflects off of it, which means shiny hair.

Below are two hair rinses available from the Meadow Muffin Gardens shop. These include not only nettles but other wonderful herbs known for their beneficial properties with hair and skin care.

Vinegar rinse for lighter hair
Chamomile and Calendula have long been used for home hair rinses to condition and try to keep that lovely blonde color from turning what we know as "dirty blonde".
Nettles are full of minerals, chlorophyll and antifungal properties used to prevent and treat scalp funk. Nettle is also a stimulant used to enhance hair growth.
Lemongrass and grapefruit essential oils are additional antimicrobial aides as well as offering their fresh citrus aroma.

Vinegar rinse for darker hair
Sage and Rosemary are often used to help darken greying hair and bring out auburn tones.
Sage, rosemary and nettles are a tonic for dry hair and itchy, flaky scalp. It is also said that these invigorating herbs enhance hair growth.
Basil and lavender essential oils combine for an uplifting, refreshing aroma.

Even if you have no interest in dealing with a nettle patch for food or medicinal purposes, let it alone to help out the butterflies. Members of the Nymphalidae or Brush-footed butterflies, depend on nettles for the growth of their caterpillars. Look for Red Admirals, Tortoiseshells, Peacocks, and Commas.

Nettles also make a great fertilizer for the gardener. Soaked in a bucket of water, the resulting tea once strained is great for the plants and can be used as a spray for aphids and black flies. Add chopped up nettles to the compost heap to act as a natural activator which speeds up decomposition.

For those who don't have access to the fresh plants or have no interest in dealing with it, stinging nettles can be purchased as a dried herb. Teas, cold infusions and herbal vinegars are easily made using dried stinging nettles. 


For those who suffer from hayfever, here is a delicious syrup recipe to help support the immune system so you can enjoy the joy of being outdoors. The credit for this recipe is from:

You will need:
Several large handfuls of Nettle tops (go for at least two loosely packed pints if possible)
Lemon zest and juice of one lemon
Spices if preferred – cinnamon, ginger and star anise work well.
Brown sugar – an equal amount to the resulting decoction.
At least 1 pint of water – if you have two loosely packed pints of nettle, two pints is better.

Check over the nettle for bugs or bird poop, and rinse them off if needed. Chop finely, discarding any discolored bits and put the finely diced herbs into a saucepan – enamel, stainless steel or glass is best, avoid aluminium as it will leech into your remedy. 

Add the two pints of water and bring the whole lot to a gentle simmer. Add the lemon zest and juice, and the spices if you wanted to add them (best to give these a bash in the mortar and pestle first as these often have a hard coating that makes it difficult for the water to get at them if they are not broken first.) Simmer the herb, spice and water mixture for at least ten minutes to extract as much goodness as possible, then take it off the heat and cool slightly.

Strain the liquid through jelly cloth and put the resulting decoction back into a pan – the spent herbs can be composted.   Add at least 500g of sugar per pint of liquid, more is better as it will preserve for longer. Honey unfortunately does not work for this kind of recipe as it just doesn’t preserve long enough when diluted with water, though if you did prefer to use honey, freeze your remedy in ice cube trays and take a cube out when needed.

 Return your pan to the heat and bring to a gentle boil, keeping a close eye on it – sugar burns very easily! Simmer gently until reduced down by about 1/5th. The consistency of the syrup should start to change about now, becoming thicker. Take off the heat and pour into clean bottles, capping whilst still hot to get a good preservative seal on the bottle.
Nettle syrup can be taken year round to support the immune system and improve the body’s ability to resist allergens in the atmosphere, ideal if you or a friend or loved one suffers from hayfever or allergies.  

Take around 10mls in the morning to build up the immune system, or a similar dose twice a day if hayfever season has already kicked in and you are feeling pretty miserable with it.   Back it up with plantain tincture or regular cups of plantain tea soothe hayfever if its already well entrenched.

 Love it or leave it, you certainly won't forget nettles once you happen to meet and greet! 

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