You may see Stinging Nettle as a plant that should be avoided, however, this plant is important for food, fiber, and medicine.
What Makes Stinging Nettle Sting?
The leaves and stems bear many stinging hairs whose tips come off when touched, turning the hair into a needle that inject several chemicals: these include the neurotransmitters acetylcholine (which cause muscle contractions and is found in some insect bites), histamine (which triggers the inflammatory response), serotonin (which makes us feel good and regulation of mood, appetite, sleep, as well as muscle contraction. Serotonin also has some cognitive functions, included in memory and learning), and formic acid (which is a major component of bee and ant stings). Yes that combination can give us pain, inflammation, and enough clarity of thought that we will not forget that this plant can cause pain.
Medicinal Uses of Stinging Nettle
But that same sting can relieve the pain of arthritis and other ailments. The tea has been used for centuries for allergies. There is a huge list of benefits from eating nettles.
Let me first say I am not a doctor or an herbalist, please consult a medical authority before using any herb. That being said the following I have found true, when stinging nettle comes into contact with a painful area of the body, pain is felt from the stinging nettle however, the net outcome is actually a decrease in the original pain. Scientists think nettle does this by reducing levels of inflammatory chemicals in the body, and by interfering with the way the body transmits pain signals other data suggests that it fires all of the pain synopsis therefore giving relief from pain until the synopsis can chemically reset.
A tea made from the leaves is a diuretic therefore flushes urinary tract aiding treatment of infections in the urinary tract. It is shown to give relief in the early stages of an enlarged prostate. After having had the pleasure of kidney stones eating cooked stinging nettle greens and drinking its tea was an aide in getting things back in order.
The nettle's ability to reduce the amount of histamine the body produces in response to an allergen reduces the symptoms of allergies.
However, stinging nettle can also alter the affects of some drugs and thins the blood so again do some research.
Stinging Nettle as a Food
I first had those about 30 years ago steamed and was very surprised how good they were. A quick steaming or sauté and the sting is gone; use it like you would any cooked spinach dish, like in omelets, quiche, or meat dishes. I have it as a nice tea from fresh or dried leaves, fry it like potato chips, or roasted. With the guidance of a good mentor you can fold and roll up the leaf with the hairs in and eat them raw. Or put the raw leaves in the blender to be chopped and the sting will go away and then it can be put into dips raw.
When I see its fresh spring growth along the creek beds during a survival trip I know that I will not be going to bed hungry. On a trip I made a few years back there was not much more to be found then stinging nettle and every meal for four days was mostly nettles; roasted, boiled, and raw. We were in need of protein but we were not hungry.
Like many plants they are not so good after they start to flower and it is not much of a flower.
Stinging Nettle for Fiber
Stinging nettle has another important use, in Europe and America the fibers were used to make cordage, rope, sailcloth, sacking, fishing nets, and fine cloth for thousands of years. Farming, hunting, fishing, industry, transportation, shelter, and clothing all used the fibers of stinging nettle. You most likely descended from those that were successful (lived at least long enough to assure the success of the next generation) because of the fibers of this plant. In good rich moist soil with full sun I have seen stinging nettle as tall as I can reach by the end of summer. That tall single stock has a very thin hollow fiber that can make linen like cloth. Funny when looking for dogbane to make cordage, I was overlooking Stinging Nettle, until this past fall when a group of us were sitting around a camp fire making cordage from stinging nettle using exactly the same technique as I do using dogbane, the cordage I made was super strong.
To harvest stinging nettle for fiber collect it in fall wearing gloves and long sleeves. After they have dried they seem to not sting however, do take precautions. With a knife, scrape off the outer surface, hairs, and leaves. You can beat it using a smooth stick on a smooth log so along its length until it is pulverized into just the treads. Instead of beating it you can also split it along its length starting in the middle. Now start at the base of the stock holding it between your thumb and index finger with about an inch sticking out with the pith towards you and karate chop it with the other hand. Continue to hold the stock in between the thumb and index finger and now peel the broken wood up and away from the fibers. Continue to hold the long stock with pressure between the thumb and index finger with the other hand pull the fibers over the index finger. You will develop a rhythm and this task will go quickly. Now rub and roll the fibers between your hands to clean the fibers of debris.
One way to make cordage is to do a reverse wrap. Take about a dozen fibers and fold them not quite in the middle and hold them in between the thumb and forefinger of your left hand. Hold them so that half of the fibers are away from you. Take those fibers in between the thumb and forefinger of the right hand and twist them to the right like you are screwing in a light bulb then bring them over the top of the fibers closest to you and grasp them with the thumb and forefinger of the left hand. Continue this until you are about 2 inches from the end and twist more fibers into your cord. Again in time you will develop a rhythm to this and make 6 feet of cord in short order. As you develop skills you will start to find that your string and cordage looks as nice as any coming from the store and in many cases stronger.