Ouch! Why nettles sting, and how you can put them to good use

 
Posted7/16/2018 6:00 AM
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  • Each slender hair on a nettle acts like a hypodermic needle. If you brush up against a nettle plant, thousands of these little needles will inject a mixture of formic acid, histamine and acetylcholine.

    Each slender hair on a nettle acts like a hypodermic needle. If you brush up against a nettle plant, thousands of these little needles will inject a mixture of formic acid, histamine and acetylcholine. courtesy of Valerie Blaine

  • Stinging nettles are plants that thrive in floodplain forests. They are prickly, but once disarmed, nettles are nutritious, full of medicinal properties, and a great source of fiber for rope-making.

    Stinging nettles are plants that thrive in floodplain forests. They are prickly, but once disarmed, nettles are nutritious, full of medicinal properties, and a great source of fiber for rope-making. courtesy of Valerie Blaine

  • Nettles are tall green plants that are in their prime from midsummer to fall.

    Nettles are tall green plants that are in their prime from midsummer to fall. courtesy of Valerie Blaine

Have you ever encountered stinging nettles in the woods? If yes, then you'll feel my pain. If not, take heed. When battling invasive plants in my woods with a weed whacker last week, I hit a patch of nettles. A thousand pieces of nettle leaves were flung into the air. A good portion of them landed on my arms and face -- and stuck there. I felt like I was on fire. Nettles are in their prime from midsummer to fall. There are several different nettle species in our area. Some have lance-shaped leaves, while some are widely oval. They all have sharply toothed edges. The flowers are small, green and inconspicuous. Nettles are tall and green, blending into the overall vegetation. They're easy to overlook in the verdant summer woods. The salient feature of nettles are the sharp little hairs on the stems and leaves. Each slender hair acts like a hypodermic needle. If you brush ever-so-slightly against a nettle plant, the tiny needles will inject a mixture of histamine, and acetylcholine, and formic acid (the latter is the same chemical that causes bee stings to hurt). This chemical warfare is an effective deterrent from herbivores of all shapes and sizes. You'd think no one would be even tempted to mess with these ferocious plants, but people in both the Old World and the New World have used nettles for centuries. Someone a long time ago discovered that a quick dousing in boiling water could disarm nettles. And, once deactivated, they have a million uses. They're edible, medicinal, and they're an excellent source of fiber for basketry, clothing and rope-making. They're useful in dye-making, to boot. Simmering young nettle leaves provides a green vegetable dish that's full of nutrients, on par with spinach. The leaves contain high levels of vitamins C, A, and D, plus manganese, iron, calcium and potassium. Tea is also made from the young nettle shoots and leaves. When prepared as soup, nettles are supposed to be pretty tasty, too. Medicinally, the use of nettles has run the gamut from blood purifier to gastronomic aid. Nettle has been applied in treatments for arthritis and all manner of skin afflictions.

Native American uses of nettles are discussed on the Macalester College website. "The Lakota create a root infusion to treat stomach pain, while the Potawatomi create a root infusion to reduce fevers," according to the site. "The Ojibwa make a poultice out of the stewed leaves for heat rash … the Chippewa are known to use nettle for battling dysentery and for 'the stoppage of urine' … The Winnebago utilize it for subduing allergy symptoms." Contemporary uses of nettle are based on hundreds of years of traditional applications. Nettle is popular today in alternative medicine, for conditions as diverse as urinary problems, hay fever, joint pains, and even insect bites. The use of nettle for its fibers goes way back in time. Burial shrouds made of nettle have been discovered in Denmark, dating to 2,000 B.C. Romans practiced "nettle flogging," in which people would flog themselves with stinging nettle to treat ailments such as arthritis, dermatitis, hives, even lethargy. In Europe, "nettle cloth" was used for German military uniforms during times of shortage in World War I. Nettle fiber was used in North America as well. Pottawatomi Indians used nettle cordage to make mats, baskets, and twine. The Menominee weaved nettle fiber bags, and the Winnebago Indians incorporated nettle in the ceremonial "Sacred Bundle of the Tent of War," according to Rochelle Peterson, citing recent research on the flora of the Winnebago Indians. Other native peoples used nettle for fishing nets. All of the nettles' nifty uses have created quite a fan base over the years. There's an international community of nettle lovers out there, from foragers (those who like to hunt and gather wild plants) to advocates of alternative medicine, basket weavers, and artisans in dye-making. Just how popular is nettle? Judging from the number of nettle festivals you can find on the internet, nettle-loving is a huge deal. Take, for example, the International Nettle Festival in the Russian village of Krapivna, a few hours south of Moscow. At this event, according to their website, festivalgoers can enjoy "numerous interactive entertainments: 'baptism' by nettle, making traditional souvenirs, culinary contests and trying dishes cooked with nettle, nettle fights, etc." (No thanks, I've already been baptized by nettles in St. Charles.) In France, where nettles are called "les orties," there's "La Fête de l'ortie" in Charmy. With typical French flair, this festival emphasizes the gastronomic delights of nettles. Britain has its annual "Be Nice to Nettles Week" in May, "when we are encouraged to recognize how important this humble weed is to wildlife … and how nettles … are more than just a nuisance, but are important to humans too." How about this side of the ocean? There's a smattering of nettle festivals in the United States -- mostly the Pacific Northwest -- but so far I've found none in Illinois. If any readers are nettle-philes and know of close-by nettle fests, let me know. Nettles are all-around, pretty cool plants. The diversity of nettle uses is impressive, just as is their sting. Give nettles a nod, and steer clear with the weed whacker.

• Valerie Blaine is the environmental education manager for the Forest Preserve District of Kane County. You can reach her at blainevalerie@kaneforest.com.

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