Monday, July 1, 2013

Not Enough Mettle to Eat a Nettle

Nettles on my knee.
I was only recently introduced to the surprising sting of the nettle plant on a hike in Larrabee State Park. I was walking along minding my own business when I suddenly felt a sharp nip in my ankle. I stopped and squatted down to tend to the blood that was surely streaming from my injury. But when I looked at the site of the sting, there wasn't a mark to be found. At first I wasn't sure if I was going to express the pain I was feeling from this phantom wound with my hiking partner, but the persistent throbbing forced me to speak up.

“Oh, you just got stung by a nettle,” she said nonchalantly. I was intrigued. We don’t have nettles in West Virginia and so I was completely taken off guard with this predatory plant. The pain from the nettles feels like a combination of a bee sting and electrotherapy. In other words, it’s not pleasant. Each person’s reaction may be different, but for me it starts with an initial sting, then a strange throbbing sensation and concludes with an itchy rash reminiscent of poison ivy that lasts 3-4 days.

Urtica dioica
At closer look, the leaves and stems have many hairs called trichomes, which act like hypodermic needles, injecting histamine and other chemicals that produce a stinging sensation when contacted by humans and other animals. Even more shocking, nettles have a long history of being used for food and medicinal purposes despite their hairy weapons.

When cooked, the flavor of nettle is similar to spinach and cucumber and it is rich in vitamins A and C, iron, potassium, manganese and calcium, making it a highly nutritious plant source. Soaking nettles in water or cooking the nettles will remove the stinging chemicals from the plant. You can use nettles as an alternative to leafy greens in a variety of recipes, such as soups, pasta and pesto. Nettles are also sometimes used to flavor some varieties of cheese and the leaves may be steeped for tea.

Nettle leaf extract has been used to treat arthritis and is an ingredient in shampoo to make hair appear more glossy. It also acts as a diuretic with the intention to prevent kidney stones and urinary tract infections.

I don’t know if the stinging nettle will catch on to become the next kale, but I do know to keep my arms and legs on the trails at all times. 

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