WORDS BRYCE M. WATTS
Stinging Nettle is an herbaceous perennial flowering plant that grows to 3m tall. It is best known for the stinging hairs that cover its stem. Its leaves are lance- to heart-shaped with toothed edges and prominent venation. Stinging Nettle flowers bloom in small drooping clusters from the tips of the stems. Male flower clusters grow separately from female clusters and are usually found above the female flowers. The most common habitats to find these plants are open forests, meadows, and disturbed sites such as roadsides and barnyards. It thrives in rich moist soil from lowlands to subalpine elevations. Its native range is vast, spreading across North America, Europe, Asia, and North Africa where conditions are favourable.
As a source of medicine and food Stinging Nettle is hard to beat. It is high in iron, boron, vitamins A and C, chlorophyll, and tannins. Medicinally, Stinging Nettles have been used for centuries. The Ojibwe of Eastern Canada made use of a tea made from young leaves to act as a diuretic. Like the Ojibwe, Gitksan people also made a tea from the young leaves as an herbal medicine. This tea has been recommended for treating bronchitis, asthma, seasonal allergies, and even kidney stones. Due to its high iron content Stinging Nettles are good for the blood by helping coagulation and have been used to aid women to reduce bleeding associated with menstruation. As a topical treatment Stinging Nettle has been applied to joints affected by symptoms of arthritis and rheumatism. Many scientific studies have been conducted to test the idea that applying the sting of nettles to areas suffering from joint pains can have temporary relief from the symptoms. The histamine injected by the stinging hairs is thought to trigger the release of anti-inflammatory chemicals in the body, thus relieving symptoms. The idea of countering one pain with another led Stinging Nettle to be used for these issues and it was even sometimes cauterized in wounds with clumps of cedar bark.
As a food, Stinging Nettle is a wonderful addition to any meal. There are numerous sources giving the culinary attributes of these plants. Young shoots were harvested during the early spring, by the Cowichan and Saanich, before flower development and boiled just as spinach would be. In British Columbia, many First Nations groups, including the Cowichan, Sechelt, and Haida ate Stinging Nettles in this manner. It is one of the most common plants used in places such as Bulgaria as well, where it is used in soups. Its coagulating properties have even leant itself to the production of cheese in some communities.