I enjoy foraging and finding uses for weeds and plants that pop up everywhere this time of year. Recently I discovered that one of the local plants that's usually avoided like the plague is full of nutrients and pharmaceutical benefits. You might wonder why I’d even think of handling something as vexatious as stinging nettle. It just goes against my stingy nature to go to the grocery store and spend money on food and medicine that's growing right under my nose. Besides, I kind of like the challenge – the slight element of danger. Hey, I’ll take any excitement I can get!
I first encountered stinging nettle walking through a wooded area in Nebraska, and since then I’ve learned to keep a close eye on the vegetation when I’m walking there. (Not to mention performing other necessary functions that one does in the woods.) I’d rate the discomfort from the sting somewhere between pain and extreme irritation, but the sensation goes away after a few minutes. The plants are covered with tiny little hollow needles that inject several chemicals into anything unfortunate enough to brush against them. Not pleasant.
One of the issues I deal with on a daily basis is lower back pain. I can’t take ibuprofen or other NSAID drugs because of stomach issues. I’m constantly looking for ways to mitigate the pain so I can go about daily life and chores. When I was researching nettles, I found there has been a lot of scientific research done on their ability to treat joint pain. The clincher is that you can’t just make a tincture or neutralize the venom first. You have to apply the stinging needles directly to your skin so they can inject the chemicals. “The hairs, or spines, of the stinging nettle are normally very painful to the touch. When they come into contact with a painful area of the body, however, they can actually decrease the original pain. Scientists think nettle does this by reducing levels of inflammatory chemicals in the body, and by interfering with the way the body transmits pain signals.” (Source: University of Maryland Medical Center)
So in case you’re wondering, the answer is yes. I did it. I stuck a handful of them on my back. And yes, it stung. After about four minutes, the stinging went away, and it actually helped the pain. I would say it was about the same effect as taking a few ibuprofens. So far I’ve done it twice. The first time it only lasted a few hours, and I wanted to see if it was just in my head. The second time it lasted several hours longer. I still haven’t decided if it is worth the initial pain, but I think when I’m having a particularly bad back day, it will be.
Nettles also reportedly have beneficial properties for lactation, diabetes, dandruff, kidney and urinary tract issues, prostate, testosterone, the cardiovascular system, hemorrhage, flu, rheumatism and gout. People make tinctures, poultices, teas, and other remedies from them. They are also nutritious, with high levels of calcium and vitamin A. You can use nettles in any recipe you would use spinach or other cooked dark greens. I made the Indian dish, Saag, and it was delicious. I include the recipe here if you’re interested in trying it.
6 cups uncooked nettles
3 tablespoon canola oil, divided
1/2 pound paneer
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 thinly sliced onion
1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 diced tomato
2 teaspoons garam masala
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 cup heavy whipping cream
Salt to taste
Bring water to a boil. Cook nettles until wilted, about 3 minutes. Drain well and transfer to a food processor. Puree until finely chopped.
Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Fry paneer cubes, stirring constantly, until browned on all sides. Set aside.
Heat remaining canola oil in the skillet and fry the cumin seeds until lightly toasted. Add onion; cook and stir until onion begins to soften. Stir in ginger, garlic, tomato, garam masala, turmeric, and cayenne pepper; cook and stir until tomato pieces break down and onions are translucent.
Stir in nettles, cream, paneer cubes, and salt to taste. Cover and cook for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.