We often overlook the benefits of what we ordinarily see as a problem plant since a ‘problem plant’ is usually categorised as a weed.
The Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica) also called common nettle, is a weedy perennial plant of the nettle family which is known for its stinging leaves. It is distributed almost worldwide but is especially common in Europe, North America, North Africa, and parts of Asia.
The plant is common in herbal medicine and young leaves can be cooked and eaten as a nutritious potherb. Additionally, stinging nettle has been used as a source of bast fibres for textiles and is sometimes used in cosmetics.
Stinging nettle is an herbaceous plant and often grows to about 2 metres (6.5 feet) in height. The plant can spread with its yellow creeping rhizomes and often forms dense colonies.
The toothed leaves are borne oppositely along the stem, and both the stems and leaves are covered with numerous stinging and non-stinging plant hairs. The plants can be dioecious (an individual produces only female or male flowers) or monoecious (an individual bears both male and female flowers), depending on the subspecies.
The tiny green or white flowers are borne in dense whorled clusters in the leaf axils and stem tips and are wind pollinated. The fruits are small achenes, and the plants produce copious amounts of seeds.
The stinging trichomes of the leaves and stems have bulbous tips that break off when brushed against, revealing needle like tubes that pierce the skin. They inject a mix of acetylcholine, formic acid, histamine, and serotonin, causing an itchy, burning rash in humans and other animals that may last up to twelve hours.
Hunting dogs running through stinging nettle thickets have been poisoned, sometimes lethally, by the massive accumulation of stings. This defence mechanism is an effective deterrent against most large herbivores, though the plant is an important food for several butterfly species and aphids.
The dried plant can be used as livestock feed, and heating or cooking the fresh leaves renders them safe for consumption. The next time you see a stinging nettle, just think of how useful it can be, as well as being nutritious.
Stinging nettle has a long history of use as a medicinal herb and is still used in folk medicine for a wide array of disorders, though there is limited clinical evidence supporting its efficacy.
The rootstock is used as a diuretic and as an herbal treatment for benign prostate enlargement and other urinary disorders. Tea made from the leaves has been used to treat hay fever, diabetes, gout, and arthritis.
Fresh stinging leaves are sometimes applied to arthritic joints in a process known as urtification, which is said to stimulate blood flow. Topical creams have also been developed for joint pain and various skin ailments, including eczema and dandruff.