Last summer, the weeding around our home got ahead of me. Despite my best efforts, trying to keep our landscape beds and container plants weed free, the weeds prevailed. Perhaps it was all the rain that kept me from my responsibilities? There was one larger container, filled with Coleus and sweet potato vine that, as I looked more closely, had a volunteer plant among it. And even though I knew better, I decided to take a chance and pull out what had volunteered itself barehanded… big mistake!
Widespread throughout Europe and North America, “Stinging Nettle” Urtica dioica, is also found in northern Africa, Asia and northern Mexico. The “dead giveaway”, and really what should have caused more trepidation rather than hastiness for me, are the toothed, hairy leaves and stems. “The painful sensation of nettle stings occurs when toxins from specialized hairs are delivered into the skin. Each stinging hair has a bulbous tip which breaks off to leave a sharp, needle-like tube that pierces the skin and injects histamine and acetylcholine, causing itching and burning that may last up to 12 hours” (https://kew.org/science-conservation). Trying to relieve our annual planter of the stinging nettle, I pulled on it very slowly, so as to capture the plant in its entirety. Knowing that this plant is more than capable and certain to release these toxins, it was almost a test to see if it really would be as bad as what I’ve read and heard, it was! Within a minute my fingers, wrist and forearm had “pins and needles” and my arm started to go numb.
Urtica dioica grows several feet tall and has soft, serrated, oval to heart-shaped green leaves that are opposite each other in pairs on the stem. Most parts of the plant are covered with both stinging and non-stinging hairs and the plant spreads by underground roots, noticeably yellow. Greenish-white flowers, with drooping clusters of four petals per flower can be pretty to look at. Considered a common weed by some, not in jeopardy or threatened, stinging nettle is of great importance to wildlife, supporting over 40 species of insects. A food source for many butterfly and aphid types, it even benefits the bird population with its abundant seed. Typically found in meadows, open forests and apparently in residential backyards.
Nettles have been used for centuries, harvested for food and medicine and for those willing to try, cooking is said to destroy its stings. Nettle soup, popular for cleansing the blood, is comprised of young shoots and leaves. You can also make cheese (Cornish Yarg), pesto, cordials and herbal tea all from Urtica dioica. However, after my experience, I’m not so sure I would be quick to taste these. Interestingly, a traditional remedy for rheumatism involves deliberately stinging the afflicted area with nettle leaves. Nettle plants have also been used in textiles, as their stems contain extremely tough fibers. Finally, some horticulturists have even used nettle plants as a liquid plant food as they are nutritionally rich.
Perhaps my “nettle experience” was such because Urtica dioica likes generous amounts of water and deep, rich soil. Given the amount of rain last year coupled with a sort of utopian planting mix I use for our annuals, our nettle was well anchored, refusing to yield to my efforts. Clearly my decision to slowly apprehend this garden nuisance, with my bare hand, was a poor one. A decision predicated on saving some 40 steps, the distance to our garage to get my gardening gloves, had me somewhere between obstinacy and imprudence. “Seems you can’t outsmart Mother Nature” Mark Hyman.