Stinging Nettle - Why Am I Drying This "Weed"?

When one thinks about stinging nettle most folks don't usually seek it out, will avoid it like the plague and work to eradicate it.  Whether it is growing in a location that is accessed a lot or in the garden, there is certainly times when this “weed” needs to be removed.  But if one remembers that a ”weed" is really any plant that is not growing in a location that is desirable, and not dismiss it as useable or beneficial, one's view towards stinging nettle changes.  Although I avoid it as well when working around the place and dig it out of places that I don't want it because it does “bite”, I also leave it be so that I can dawn  gloves and harvest it.  But the reasons why I would harvest it at all and why I am drying this “weed” might surprise you too.


Stinging Nettle Identification

Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica) is usually identified after I get “bit” by it but if I want to identify what “bit” me, with the help of my plant ID book, Plants of the Western Boreal Forest & Aspen Parkland by Johnson, Kershaw, MacKinnon and Pojar I am able to positively identify it.  But rest assured, once you identify stinging nettle the first time, you will never forget it.  Stinging nettle is identified by opposite narrow lance to heart-shaped leaves that are 4 -15 cm (1.8 - 5.9 inches)  long.  The leaves are saw toothed in appearance and are attached to the main stalk via a 1 - 6 cm (0.4 - 2.4 inch) petiole.  The main squarish stem which may have purplish veining on it and the leaves will be covered with small hairs.

Stinging nettle - Nettle plant

Mature stinging nettles will have a spike appearance and be covered with flowers that are located in drooping clusters at the leaf axis (where petiole and main stem meet).  Flowers are inconspicuous and have no petals but have 4 sepals 1 - 2 mm long.   Female and male flowers are born on separate plants or on separate stems from the same plant and along with the seed production can spread through rhizome growth.

Stinging nettle - nettle patch

Although stinging nettle can be purchased as seeds or starts from various sources, because of its aggressive growth habits, I choose to forage for it.  Stinging nettle prefer to grow in moist areas in wooded or open areas whether that be on the banks of streams or in disturbed areas.  It really does grow in a wide variety of soils but as I explored in Seasonal Yard Clean up - Why I don't do much Fall Yard Clean up, stinging nettle and other “weeds” can be a good indicator of soil health.  As indicated in the article What Weeds Tell You About Your Soil, stinging nettle is a good indicator of rich, acidic soil and being that my wild patches are growing around my chicken coop, I would say this  would be an accurate description.


Stinging Nettle “bite”

The “bite” or sting of the stinging nettle plant is what usually grabs my  attention.  Which, according  to Plants of the Western Boreal Forest & Aspen Parkland by Johnson, Kershaw, MacKinnon and Pojar, is because “stinging nettle is covered with tiny, hollow, pointed hairs.  The swollen base of each hair contains a tiny droplet of formic acid, and when the hair tip pierces you, the acid is injected into your skin.  This can cause itching and burning for a few minutes to a couple of days.  Rubbing nettle stings with the plant's own roots is said to help relieve the burning.”.   Crushed leaves of plantain (Plantago spp) applied to the “bite” will also help to remove the sting from these hairs. 

Formic Acid, according to Wikepedia, is found in most ants and in stingless bees of the genus Oxytrigona.  Apart from that, this acid is incorporated in many fruits such as pineapple and kiwi, as well as in many vegetables, namely onion, eggplant and, in extremely low concentrations, cucumber.  Although the naturally occurring versions of this acid would seem to not be harmful to most humans as “it functions as an important intermediate in chemical synthesis and a preservative and antibacterial agent in livestock feed”, the manipulation and manufacture of this acid have created problems in that the pure liquid and vapor are combustible and highly corrosive.” 

So although stinging nettle might release the formic acid as a protective measure of the plant, the risks associated with this natural form of it according to WebMed are burning, itching and/or a rash. "Avoid stinging nettle if you're allergic or sensitive to nettle or plants in the same family." 


Stinging Nettle Uses

Although I have not done it yet, it is said that it can be eaten as a spinach when picked extremely young before the hairs form.  But if the hairs have formed, the heat of cooking will remove the hairs from the plant allowing for consumption.  But why would I want to eat stinging nettle when there are so many other choices for greens.

Besides the obvious reasons of being easily accessible for foraging, stinging nettle has been consumed for thousands of years in one form or the other and for good reason.  As indicated in the June, 2022 scientific report Nutritional and pharmacological importance of stinging nettle (Urtica dioica L.): A review , stinging nettle “is widely cooked in areas where vegetables are scarce. The use of stinging nettle slurry as a fertilizer in organic farming for horticultural crops is becoming more common in Spain, according to many ethnobotanical studies (). Nettle has been used as a natural remedy for its healing properties for over 2000 years. However, it was not until the turn of the century that its medicinal potential was fully appreciated”.  The report goes on to explain that the medical potential of stinging nettle are because “Some of its qualities include anti-proliferative, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, analgesic, immunological stimulatory, anti-infectious, hypotensive, anti-ulcer, and cardiovascular disease prevention.” and that drinking a nettle tea “has a number of health benefits, including reducing skin irritation and alleviating allergy symptoms”.

The report further indicates that “Because of its balanced protein composition and relatively high mineral and vitamin content, nettle is becoming more well-known. It contains a lot of vitamin C and provitamin A (). Protein accounts for about 30% of dry mass and contains numerous amino acids necessary by humans. Minerals account about 20% of the dry mass. Zinc, iron, cobalt, potassium, nickel, and molybdenum are all abundant ().”  If you wish to see the nutritional benefits of stinging nettle, click Table 1. The bioactive compounds found in stinging nettle can be summed up in this table taken from the report:

Parts Bioactive compounds
Leaves and root Vitamins (vitamin A, C, K, and B vitamins), minerals (calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium and sodium), fats (linoleic acid, linolenic acid, palmitic acid, stearic acid and oleic acid), amino acids (all of the ​essential amino acids), polyphenols (kaempferol, quercetin, caffeic acid, coumarins and other flavonoids), pigments (beta-carotene, lutein, luteoxanthin and other carotenoids)
Seed Vitamins (vitamin A, B, C, E and K), minerals (iron, silicon, calcium, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, potassium), beta-carotene, folic acid, essential fatty acids

As this report shows in depth, there are many nutritional benefits to cooking the stinging nettles, but there are also a number of additional uses and benefits to using stinging nettles, such as in agricultural applications, baking and botanical pesticides, to mention a few.  But it's use in medicinal applications is where it also shines.

In addition to this scientific report a number of medical articles have been published about the benefits of stinging nettle.  WebMed published a report titled Stinging Nettle that highlights its health benefits for diabetes, high blood pressure, joint pain, reduced bleeding and healing, allergies and Benign Prostatic Hyperplasia(BPH). Mount Sinai in a report titled Stinging Nettle also sings the praises of stinging nettle with their general statement of “Stinging nettle has been used for hundreds of years to treat painful muscles and joints, eczema, arthritis, gout, and anemia. Today, many people use it to treat urinary problems during the early stages of an enlarged prostate (called benign prostatic hyperplasia or BPH). It is also used for urinary tract infections, hay fever (allergic rhinitis), or in compresses or creams for treating joint pain, sprains and strains, tendonitis, and insect bites.”.  And Dr. Patrick Jones who has been using herbs in his practice for years, highlights on his YouTube channel The Homegrown Herbalist and in his book The Homegrown Herbalist Guide to Medicinal Weeds that “nettle leaf is one of my favorite nutritive herbs.  It's high levels of vitamins and minerals are fabulous for gestating or nursing mothers, old folks, young folks, sick folks or about any other kind of folks.”.  In addition to the uses the other reports have highlighted Dr. Jones also points out that “Sufferers of arthritis find that intentionally stinging their sore joints with nettles (a technique called urtication) can decrease inflammation and pain, often for days at a time.”.  

Although I am not sure about sticking my sore body parts into a bed of nettles, there is definite benefits to cooked consumption and/or  topical applications and/or ingesting the dried herb by using the dried stinging nettle as a greens powder (powdered up dried greens) in smoothies or as a sprinkling on my meal.  Use in teas, tincture, herbal oils and salves are also great ways to benefit from the nutritional and healing powers of this herb.   I really like how this infographic published in the report Nutritional and pharmacological importance of stinging nettle (Urtica dioica L.): A review illustrates the health benefits of stinging nettle.

Figure 1 from Report published by National Library of Medicine


Harvesting Stinging Nettle

I live in a part of the world where things do not grow all year round and so to be able to use vegetables and herbs throughout the winter, I have to preserve them in some way.  Although stinging nettles could be blanched and frozen much like spinach, I am not a huge fan of frozen greens and so I choose not to preserve them in this way. However, because stinging nettle is fantastic in greens powder, teas and tinctures, drying the stinging nettle is my preferred method of preservation.  Not only does it take up less room, it can be stored in a dark cupboard for years.  But first, I need to harvest the stinging nettle.

Harvesting the stinging nettle is as simple as cutting off the new growth.  Harvesting is best done in the morning to ensure the most beneficials are in the plants.  But if it is a coolish type day or the plants are growing in a shady spot go ahead and harvest whenever.  You want to avoid the older growth when harvesting because it will not be as nutritional, will lack flavor and will not be very appealing.  To harvest stinging nettle you want to wear gloves to protect your hands while harvesting.  A knife will work to cut the new growth off the plant, but I find that a scissor makes short work of the process.

Stinging nettle - harvesting nettles


Preserving Stinging Nettle

Once harvested, you can wash them or not, it's up to you.  Because I harvested them from beside my chicken coop I decided that washing them was a good idea.  Remember the hairs are still active so you will want to wear a pair of rubber gloves or use a tong to move the stinging nettle around.  If you are freezing them, at this point you would be able to blanche and freeze them.  However if you are planning on air drying them, removing the excess moisture as best as possible is important.  Laying them out or patting them dry before laying or hanging them is a good idea to prevent the herbs from possibly molding.  A salad spinner can certainly help with this, but it is not necessary.  

If you are going to dry the stinging nettle, it is at this point you can either remove all the leaves  from the main stem or you can dry intact.  The stalk is useable but it will be slightly more woody.  If you don't care or you are planning on running the herb through a grinder, it will not matter that the stalks remain.  The stalks will take a little extra time to dry but for me, the extra effort of removing the leaves from the stem just is not worth it.  I can remove the “chunks” when I crush them, if necessary.

Air drying the herb by hanging, laying out on a screen or putting in a paper bag for a couple weeks or so will all work if I had the room.  The key to success with air drying in this manner is to lay the herb in a single layer or hang in very small bunches in a dark room with a lot of air flow.  After about 2 - 3 weeks, start checking your herbs to see if they are dry enough.  They should easily shatter when they are dry enough.

Because of the amount of stinging nettle I am harvesting I don't want to have it all over the house so I rely on my Excalibur 9-tray dehydrator to speed up the process.  I purchased it a few year back and although there are many dehydrators on the market that work well, the Excalibur came highly recommended and I have not been disappointed at all.  I am not using it to it's full capacity but for drying things like the stinging nettle it shines.

After washing the stinging nettle, I shook the material to remove as much excess water as possible (speeds up drying) and layed them out on the trays. 

Stinging nettle - laying out to dry

Once each tray was full, the tray is returned to the dehydrator and the process was repeated until all 9 trays were filled. 

Stinging nettle - washed and place on trays

The door was put back in place and the dehydrator was turned on at a temperature of 100 F (37.7 C).  When using a dehydrator for drying herbs it is recommended that the temperature be set between 95 - 110 F (35 - 43 C) but I find that 100 F works well for me. Drying time will vary depending on herb size, moisture content and the dehydrator, but after about 8 hours checking on the progress would be advisable.  My batch of stinging nettles was dry after 12 hours.

Stinging nettle - dried nettles

With it being dry, I was then able to crumble the herb and remove all the bigger chunks. 

Stinging nettle - crumbled nettle

 When dehydrating anything it is advisable to condition the product to ensure it is totally dry.  This is done by putting the product, in this case the crumbled herb, into a jar, sealing it and watching for any humidity that develops on the inside of the jar.  If humidity develops, the product should be returned to the dehydrator and dried for a little longer. 

Stinging nettle - conditioning nettle

After conditioning, my stinging nettle showed that it was dry and so I was able to put it on the shelf in my apothecary to join all the other herbs as I explored in Home Remedies using Natural Medicines - a glimpse into my Apothecary and use of herbal remedies.  With the dehydrator now empty, I can dry some more to add to the pantry shelf or to the apothecary.


Stinging Nettle Dosage

Generally speaking,  it is pretty hard to overdose on nettles especially when using it topically from a salve, tincture or infused oil. The same could be said about ingesting the herb as well.  However, as it is considered to be an extremely nutritive herb with many medicinal benefits, an adult dose is suggested to be a rounded teaspoon of stinging nettle powder twice a day for a maintenance application.  But if consuming it because of ill health, increasing to three times a day may be beneficial.  


Stinging Nettle Cautions

Although stinging nettle and most herbs are considered safe, both the scientific reports I reference do supply similar cautionary statements.  Mount Sinai in the article Stinging Nettle does sum it all up by making the following statement that “Stinging nettle is generally considered safe when used as directed. Occasional side effects include mild stomach upset, fluid retention, sweating, diarrhea, and hives or rash (mainly from topical use). It is important to be careful when handling the nettle plant because touching it can cause an allergic rash. Stinging nettle should never be applied to an open wound.”.   

Although doing one's own research with an open mind is recommended, even Dr. Patrick Jones in The Homegrown Herbalist Guide to Medicinal Weeds does caution to “avoid fresh nettles during pregnancy as the sting may cause uterine excitation and contraction.”.


Final Thoughts

Although there may be a few cautions one needs to be aware of, I feel that the benefits of stinging nettle are substantial enough to try to work It into one's diet.  For me, there are so many things in the world of herbal remedies that I still don't know about.  But the more I study, the more I am amazed with the power of herbs, stinging nettle being one of them.  And although it's use may be frowned upon by some, it's proven nutritive qualities coupled with it's medicinal benefits really make it a herb that I will continue to add to my herbal arsenal and why I am drying this “weed”. 

I hope you enjoyed this glimpse into why I choose to add stinging nettle to my apothecary and to my pantry.  If nothing else, I hope it has given you some food for thought and encourages you to explore options to supplement and/or replace modern practices.  If you did enjoy it, please consider joining the My Boreal Homestead Life community.  By supplying your email address at the bottom of the page and hitting "sign up" or by clicking Join the community, you will ensure you get an email notification when I post new blogs to the My Boreal Homestead Life site.

Thank you for joining me on the front porch of My Boreal Homestead Life as we explore this Homegrown, Homestead life, In a Modern World.


Additional Resources

Stinging Nettle - Pinterest link

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