Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica)

Nettle, aka Stinging Nettle, is one of my top beloved permaculture homestead plants. And so I am very excited to share some time dedicated to Nettle with you today!

Nettle has been called the “seaweed of the Earth”, because like seaweed, her leaves are packed full of minerals and nutrients. Nettle offers massive nutritional benefits to all those who ingest or imbibe her gifts, whether human, animal or plant.

Nettle is a great nourisher and has a lot to teach us about homestead nutrition, the natural way. But she has so, so much more to offer — you might just be surprised, I know I have been! I am so grateful to know Nettle, and I have a feeling you will be too once you invite her into your homestead garden.

Nettle Leaves and tops
Nettle leaves and tender tops in a homestead garden setting.

Introducing Stinging Nettle

Nettle’s leaves are beautifully green with coarsely toothed margins. They are heart shaped, which is fitting because everyone that has allied with Nettle loves her for her endless generosity.

Nettle is wind pollinated and its flowers are small and nondescript, hanging in clusters from the leaf nodes. Nettle’s stem is square and can grow up 4-8 feet, taller especially in rich, deep soils.

In the wild Nettle loves growing in damp, shady conditions with rich soil and lots of organic matter. Nettle travels by rhizomes and most of its roots live near the surface of the soil, so it does make sense why it likes these conditions.

However she is adaptable to other conditions and can handle some part sun easily with enough moisture, or even full sun in some climates. In the wild, Nettle is found growing throughout most of North America.

There is widespread confusion about the history of this plant on our continent. Urtica dioica is native to Europe and was brought here by colonists, but there were already stinging nettles present in North America. Some authorities recognize two species of native stinging nettle: U. gracilis and U.lyallii, while other botanists consider the European and the North American forms to be of one species. . . . Their food uses are identical, the plants look very similar, and they are believed to hybridize regularly, so there is little purpose discriminating between the native and imported stock.

Samuel Thayer, The Forager’s Harvest

Stinging Nettle earned her common name because her leaves and stems are covered with tiny hairs that sting when you come into contact with them. But do not fear her because her sting can be a great ally in more than one way (we’ll get into that a bit later)!

The common name of the Nettle, or rather its Anglo-Saxon and also Dutch equivalent, Netel, is said to have been derived from Noedl (a needle), possibly from the sharp sting, or, as Dr. Prior suggests, in reference to the fact that it was this plant that supplied the thread used in former times by the Germanic and Scandinavian nations before the general introduction of flax, Net being the passive participle of ne, a verb common to most of the Indo-European languages in the sense of ‘spin’ and ‘sew’ (Latin nere, German na-hen, Sanskrit nah, bind). Nettle would seem, he considered, to have meant primarily that with which one sews.

Maud Grieve, A Modern Herbal, Vol. II

Dioica means “two houses”, or monoecious, which refers to the flowers. This means that a Nettle plant has either male or female flowers, but not both. In other words the male flower and female flowers are housed in separately, in separate plants.

Note: Don’t confuse Nettle (Urtica dioica) with Wood Nettle (Laportea canadensis), which is also in the Urticaceae family but a different genus and species altogether. Although they have somewhat similar visual features and they both sting, they look quite different once you have become intimately familiar with Nettle.

Nettle patch in a open forest setting.
This Nettle patch is growing wild on my friends’ homestead in a part shade setting. They are not receiving irrigation but benefit from some mulch that has been built up as a result of sheep browsing and spent fodder hay composting on the surface of the soil. This nettle patch is going to seed and you can barely make out the taller stalks and flowers at the top (zoom in or open photo in new tab to see more detail).

How I First Met Nettle

It wasn’t until I was getting excited about foraging for wild food that I became aware of Nettle as a plant that I wanted to meet. I first read about Nettle in my plant ID book but I didn’t know where to look for her.

One day I heard about a local plant walk and I enthusiastically joined. Among many other beautiful wild and native plants, I got to meet Nettle up close! I was so excited! After introducing us, our guide warned us about her stinging hairs. He even showed us how to carefully harvest a leaf, roll it up and chew it without getting stung.

I do still eat a raw leaf every once in a while to mindfully show my love and offer respect to Nettle, but its not the way I would like to eat a whole meal. And yes I have been stung on the tongue and it was shocking but it wasn’t a big deal (for me anyway!).

Once I met Nettle, it suddenly occurred to me that it wasn’t the first time. I recalled as a young boy, I had met large swaths of Nettle more than once while hiking in our local woods. I only recall being told to avoid the stings, but the shape of the leaves, long stalks and growing habits were unmistakably carved into my memory.

Those Nettle patches that I knew as a boy were always growing near streams in the shade of the riparian edges of oak forests, the oasis’ from the heat of our Southern California summers.

Nettle patch in the wild in a shady zone
This wild Nettle patch is found in a shady zone with dappled light, relatively moist deep soil. They are getting up to 4 feet tall or so on average here. These Nettle plants are starting to flower.

Back then, in the boy scouts, we didn’t cook Nettle with our backpacking meals which is unfortunate. But so many of us modern humans are trying to reconnect with nature, we don’t even know what we’ve lost until we find it again, whether we’re 8 or 80 years old. And we’re all in it together.

Since then I started to notice Nettle more and more in my hikes. And more recently with my foray into permaculture, herbalism and homesteading, Nettle has shown up over and over and has since become one of my favorite permaculture homestead plants!

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Inside you’ll find:

  • Nettle’s Nutrition
  • Herbal Medicine with Nettle
  • Permaculture Gardening with Nettle
  • Harvesting Nettle
  • Cooking with Nettle
  • Preserving Nettle
  • Nettle Recipes
  • Other Uses
  • Personal Stories with Nettle
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