Nettle is the common name for between 30-45 species of flowering plants of the genus Urtica in the family Urticaceae, with a cosmopolitan though mainly temperate distribution. They are mostly herbaceous perennial plants, but some are annual and a few are shrubby.
The most prominent member of the genus is the stinging nettle Urtica dioica, native to Europe, north Africa, Asia, and North America. The genus also contains a number of other species with similar properties, listed below. However, a large number of species names that will be encountered in this genus in the older literature (about 100 species have been described) are now recognized as synonyms of Urtica dioica. Some of these taxa are still recognized as subspecies.
Most of the species listed below share the property of having stinging hairs, and can be expected to have very similar medicinal uses to the stinging nettle. The stings of Urtica ferox, the ongaonga or tree nettle of New Zealand, have been known to kill horses, dogs and at least one human.
The nature of the toxin secreted by nettles is not settled. The stinging hairs of most nettle species contain formic acid, serotonin and histamine; however recent studies of Urtica thunbergiana (Fu et al, 2006) implicate oxalic acid and tartaric acid rather than any of those substances, at least in that species.
Species in the genus Urtica, and their primary natural ranges, include:
The family Urticaceae also contains some other plants called nettles that are not members of the genus Urtica. These include the wood nettle Laportea canadensis, found in eastern North America from Nova Scotia to Florida, and the false nettle Boehmeria cylindrica, found in most of the United States east of the Rockies. As its name implies, the false nettle does not sting.
There are many unrelated organisms called nettle, such as:
Nettles are the exclusive larval food plant for several species of butterfly, such as the Peacock Butterfly or the Small Tortoiseshell, and are also eaten by the larvae of some moths including Angle Shades, Buff Ermine, Dot Moth, The Flame, The Gothic, Grey Chi, Grey Pug, Lesser Broad-bordered Yellow Underwing, Mouse Moth, Setaceous Hebrew Character and Small Angle Shades. The roots are sometimes eaten by the larva of the Ghost Moth Hepialus humuli.
Urtication, or flogging with nettles, is the process of deliberately applying stinging nettles to the skin in order to provoke inflammation. An agent thus used is known as a rubefacient (i.e. something that causes redness). This is done as a folk remedy for rheumatism, as it provides temporary relief from pain.
Extracts can be used to treat arthritis, anemia, hay fever, kidney problems, and pain. Nettle is used in hair shampoos to control dandruff, and is said to make hair more glossy, which is why some farmers include a handful of nettles with cattle feed. It is also thought nettles can ease eczema.
Nettle root extracts have been extensively studied in human clinical trials as a treatment for symptoms of benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH). These extracts have been shown to help relieve symptoms compared to placebo both by themselves and when combined with other herbal medicines.
Fresh nettle, specifically Urtica dioica, is used in folk remedies to stop all types of bleeding, due to its high Vitamin K content. Meanwhile, in dry U. dioica, the Vitamin K is practically non-existent, and so is used as a blood thinner.
Soaking nettles in water will remove the stinging chemicals from the plant, which allows them to be handled and eaten without incidence of stinging. Young leaves generally have a better taste than older, more bitter leaves.
Nettles can be used in a variety of recipes, such as polenta and pesto. Nettle soup (or Nässelsoppa in Swedish) is a common use of the plant, particularly in Northern Europe. Young nettle leaves are similar in texture to spinach and other leafy greens, and can be substituted for or mixed with other greens in recipes.
The high protein content of nettles makes them nutritionally valuable for vegetarians.
In recent years a little German company Stoffkontor Franz AG starts again producing nettle textiles. In 2007 they used 200 t nettle straw.
As well being the fibre, Nettles were also used as a dye-stuff in the medieval period.
Though the fresh leaves can cause painful stings and acute urticaria, these are rarely seriously harmful (but see remarks in the introductory section regarding the U. ferox, ongaonga or tree nettle of New Zealand). Otherwise most species of nettles are extremely safe and some are even eaten as vegetables after being steamed to remove the stingers.
Nettles can be picked painlessly by wearing a standard pair of washing-up gloves. Another common recommendation is to firmly grasp the nettle with the bare hand, crushing the stingers instead of allowing them to penetrate the skin. Done properly, this is effective in practice, however due to a natural hesitancy when grabbing a nettle, first time practitioners close their hand too gently and slowly and so get stung. A traditional verse goes "Tenderly you stroke a Nettle, and it stings you for your pains. Grasp it like a man of mettle, and it soft as silk remains."
Aesop's Fable "The Boy and the Nettles" also confirms this practice.
|The Boy and the Nettles A BOY was stung by a Nettle. He ran home and told his Mother,
saying, "Although it hurts me very much, I only touched it
gently." "That was just why it stung you," said his Mother. "The
next time you touch a Nettle, grasp it boldly, and it will be
soft as silk to your hand, and not in the least hurt you."|
Whatever you do, do with all your might.