Spring has sprung in the valley! Some people would argue that it has been spring for a few weeks, while others would say that it won’t start for a few more days, but for me it is officially spring when the first nettles raise their stalks from the leaf littered soil of the forest floor and beg to be added to my tea pot.
Nettles (Urtica dioica) have numerous health benefits. This is the time of year for harvesting the young leaves and stems, so this blog post will stay focused on the nutrients and properties of this part of the plant. Stay tuned; another post about the benefits of seed and root may find it’s way here towards the end of summer!
Nettles, like many greens, are a dense source of nutrients. They contain Vitamins A, C, and K, as well as Iron, Potassium, and Silicon. They can be prepared like most other cooking greens: steamed and eaten with a bit of butter or coconut oil, layered in a quiche or lasagna, or pureed and added to pesto and polenta. Another method is to create a tea. For highest extraction of nutrients, prepare a cold infusion by packing a quart jar with clean leaves, and fill with water. Place in the fridge for at least 24 hours. Strain, and enjoy!
Being a nutritious food isn’t the only thing nettles are great for! Did you know they have properties that are useful for treating medical conditions? Nettles have a long history of use for treating allergic rhinitis. That is, seasonal allergies! Additionally, newer research is indicating that nettles show promise as an adjunct therapy in the treatment of breast cancer.
For the treatment of allergic rhinitis, there are several mechanisms that occur when a person ingests nettles. Histamine receptors are blocked, mast cell degranulation is prevented, and inflammatory prostaglandin pathways are inhibited. Nettles work best as a preventative. Taking a little bit every day before allergy season hits is more effective than taking a bunch after you are already having an allergic reaction. Most of the research has been conducted using either an aqueous extract (tea), or freeze dried capsules.
As an adjunctive therapy in the treatment of breast cancer, nettles can cause the cancerous cells to die by interrupting enzymes that influence cell division. The studies were completed using an aqueous extract (tea) in vitro, and were especially effective against estrogen dependent type breast cancers. Keep in mind that these are preliminary studies, and that information of how effective this therapy is during breast cancer treatment in humans is still being researched. Still, it is very exciting and encouraging!
If you have never harvested nettles, or tried cooking with them, there are some things you should know. The first is wear gloves! Nettles have stinging hairs on them that can irritate the skin. When they are cooked, dried, or prepared as a tea, the sting goes away. Second, the leaves and stem need to be harvested when the plant is less than a foot tall. These very early shoots contain the most nutrients. Later harvests can be irritating to the kidneys, and contain more carbohydrate than nutrients compared to early season plants. Third, the same wild-crafting rules apply here as with all other plants. Harvest only 10% of a population, and leave an area looking like you were never there. This is not an agricultural crop, and harvesting all plants in a small area interrupts the role the plant plays in the local ecosystem, as well as leaving an ugly scar for other nature lovers. Make sure the area you are harvesting from has not been sprayed, and is not close to a roadway. It should also be mentioned that a very small number of people are allergic to nettles. As with any new plant, try a small amount first, before ingesting a larger amount.
I hope you have enjoyed this write up on nettles! It is one of my favorite plants, and I enjoyed sharing it with you. Please note that this blog entry is for general information purposes only, and is not a substitute for personalized medical advice. If you would like to learn more about how to prevent or reduce your allergic reactions to seasonal allergies, please make an appointment.