Stinging nettle is a herbaceous perennial that produces a stinging sensation and skin irritation when the fine hairs on the plant's leaves and stems touch the skin. Although it is an irritant, the plant has been harvested for food and medicine for centuries. Nettles grow throughout the world, including North America.
More than 50 species of nettles exist throughout the world. In North America, the stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) is commonly found growing in the woods and on riverbanks. Stinging nettle leaves are green and serrated with a smooth upper surface and stinging hairs on the underside. The irritating hairs contain various chemicals, including histamine, serotonin, acetylcholine and formic acid. The latter component is also found in bee stings and fire ant bites. Skin that comes in contact with nettles can experience redness, swelling, itching and numbness. Symptoms can last from minutes to hours.
Stinging nettle grows 2 to 5 feet high and spreads by an extensive system of underground rhizomes.The plant flowers from May through October with cream-colored, tiny blooms.
In the wild, stinging nettle tends to spread slowly and create dense patches that can choke out other plants and block waterways. Nettles can also become a nuisance when they grow in pathways. Pollen created by stinging nettle when it flowers can cause hay fever in sensitive individuals.
Stinging nettles are used for food and shelter by a wide variety of beneficial insects and are a larval host to many butterfly species.
Stinging nettle has a long history of use as a food and medicinal plant. Leaves are cooked like spinach and provide vitamin C, calcium, iron, magnesium and protein. For hundreds of years, stinging nettle has been used to treat a wide array of health conditions, including muscle and joint aches, eczema, arthritis, gout and anemia. In medieval times, stinging nettles was used as a diuretic. Today, stinging nettle is approved to treat various ailments, including urinary tract infections and kidney, bladder and prostrate problems. Commercially, stinging nettle is available in a dried leaf form, in capsules, and as a tincture.
Stinging nettle requires full sun to shady conditions and rich soil high in organic matter. Water the plant on a regular basis to keep the soil evenly moist.
Harvest stinging nettle foliage at any time during the growing season once the plant is established. Wear protective gloves and cut with pruners or scissors.
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