Between its notorious sting and worldwide range, most people have at least heard of stinging nettle. But nettle’s incredible health benefits truly reel in the plant’s fanbase. Nutritious and simple to prepare, nettle tea is a great way to enjoy everything the plant has to offer (minus the sting)! Here, we’ll review the best practices for finding and foraging for nettle, its health benefits, and how to incorporate the plant into your tea time.
How to Identify Stinging Nettle
A Bit of History
Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) sets itself apart from other commonly foraged plants with its extensive range. Growing on almost every continent, people have taken advantage of nettle’s benefits throughout history and cultures. In North and South America, indigenous people have used nettle as a source of food, medicine, and textile. Additionally, ancient Egyptians used nettle to relieve joint pain and treat arthritis. Even Hippocrates documented upwards of 60 medicinal remedies using nettle.
The list of its historical uses goes on, with stories from Cesar’s army to the World Wars. Needless to say, nettle’s popularity is well-recorded, and it has securely established itself at the “cool table” of ethnobotany.
Nettle is a pretty recognizable plant, once you know what to look for. Because it’s a perennial, it doesn’t die back over the winter and can grow new shoots from its rhizomes. Use these key characteristics to help identify nettle:
- Tall and straight stems (up to six feet high)
- Leaves grow in opposite pairs
- Leaves shaped like long hearts with serrated edges
- Hairy stems and leaves (Careful! These are the trichomes that produce the sting when touched.)
- Flowers are small and clustered
Though nettle grows on almost every continent, it does have some favorite habitats. It thrives in more temperate climates with plenty of sunlight. When foraging for nettle, look near water! It’s often growing near streams, rivers, and ponds.
Nettle also enjoys the nitrogen-heavy soil that often results from human disturbance. Therefore, you can also find it growing in abandoned lots, road-side ditches, and along railroad tracks. Its resiliency and wide range contribute to its reputation as a weed.
How to Harvest Nettle
Once you’ve found the nettle, be careful when harvesting it! The needle-like hairs (called trichomes) along the stem and leaves are full of irritating compounds that cause a sting that can often last a full 24 hours. The plant developed the adaptation to deter herbivory. But once we learned how nutritious those leaves are, it makes sense that the plant needs a trick up its sleeve. Anyone would want to gobble them up!
To avoid being stung, wear a good pair of work gloves when picking. If you want to grow nettle yourself, here’s a helpful guide to planning an herb garden. After harvesting, the nettle can be soaked in hot water or quickly cooked to remove the stinging hairs. Now it’s ready to brew into a tea.
How to Brew Nettle Tea
Brewing nettle tea is a simple process from start to finish! Because of nettle’s reputation for nutrition, you can easily buy tea bags or loose leaf tea. But you can also forage nettle or grow it yourself.
To brew fresh leaves, add two cups of hot water for every cup of leaves, and adjust to your own taste. You can also dehydrate the leaves and brew them into tea once they are dried. When brewing with dried nettle, use a much smaller ratio of leaves to water (just a few teaspoons per cup of water). As a bonus, once the leaves have dried, they can no longer sting you! Additionally, if you want a stronger infusion of the tea, crush the leaves with a mortar and pestle before brewing.
Follow these steps to brew nettle tea:
- Add water to the leaves in a saucepan.
- Bring the water to a boil.
- Turn off heat and let stand for five minutes.
- Strain out the leaves.
- Add sweeteners and flavorings to your taste.
Start out by only having one cup of nettle tea to make sure you don’t have any reactions to it.
In addition to tea, stinging nettle can be a nutritious addition to your meals or to supplement a health regime. From pestos to soups to smoothies, check out this list of delicious nettle recipes.
Nettle Tea Benefits
With nettle being used across so many cultures for such a long time, the medicinal and healthful qualities seem clear. However, as with much ethnobotany, the powers of herbalism often fall victim to hyperbole and fantasy. So we looked into the scientific evidence for the benefits of nettle tea.
Stinging nettle packs a punch with its nutritional value! Additionally, extracts of stinging nettle have been found to raise levels of antioxidants in the blood. Antioxidants prevent damage caused by free radicals which have links to aging and cancer.
- All the essential amino acids.
- Minerals including iron, calcium, magnesium, and potassium.
- Healthy fats including linoleic acid, palmitic acid, stearic acid, and oleic acid.
- Vitamins A, C, and K, along with a few B vitamins.
Reduce Inflammation & Relieve Pain
The same chemicals that cause nettle’s painful sting can be extraordinarily helpful if used safely. For example, chemicals such as acetylcholine, formic acid, and histamine, have anti-inflammatory properties. These qualities are particularly effective for conditions like arthritis. The practice of using nettle to treat joint pain dates back over 2,000 years. When added to creams and gels, stinging nettle even can be used as a pain reliever!
Seasonal Allergy Treatment
Related to nettle’s ability to reduce inflammation in joints and muscles, it can help treat seasonal allergies. The histamine in the nettle triggers an anti-histamine response in the body which can fight off the inflammation caused by allergens. While nettle has been used to treat allergies for years, recent studies have been more inconclusive on its effectiveness compared to placebos.
Urinary Tract Health
Nettle continues to wow the medical community with its impact on urinary tract health. Over 50% of men over the age of 51 experience benign prostatic hyperplasia (BHP) which causes an enlarged prostate gland and painful urination. A 2013 study demonstrated that taking nettle supplements both can reduce prostate size and flush harmful bacteria from the urinary tract.
With few to no side effects, nettle is a dreamy natural supplement. However, be sure to consult your doctor before starting to treat any health concerns with nettle.
Harvesting and brewing your own nettle tea is empowering! Not only are you a botanical rock star, but now you’re also reaping the nutritional benefits of this powerful plant.