Spring Foraging - Stinging Nettles and Native American Ethnobotany

First Day of Spring & World Storytelling Day

We finally made it through the winter! Today, March 20th 2021, is the first official day of spring. Not only that, today is World Storytelling Day! What a perfect day to share with my tribe some legends about one of my favorite herbs that you will see starting to sprout this time of year – Stinging Nettle!

Welcome to my blog, Herb and Legend, where I get to unleash my inner geek and dig into some medicinal herbs and share with you their uses throughout history. So many plants we see as we are walking along are often thought of as “weeds” or perhaps not even thought of at all. But as a child, I was taught to think of these plants differently. Much of what I learned early on came from attending Native American heritage events, celebrations and “Pow-wows”.  As a child, I attended as many of these as I could. I felt such a strong and close connection with my heritage in this area that I couldn’t explain, and getting to learn from them was the most exciting thing I could think of! As I grew up, my love of plants and their uses never went away, as a matter of fact it grew so strong I decided to dedicate my livelihood to it. So, in honor of the first day of spring AND world storytelling day I’d like to give you a little dose of Native American Ethnobotany on the ever-useful plant, The Stinging Nettle.

Here’s what it looks like:


Urtica Dioica

The Stinging Nettle - Nature's Nutrient

First to properly identify Stinging Nettles, here’s what you need to know.  In early spring when the plant is very young, the leaves can have a purple hue. They are somewhat heart shaped, with the point away from the stem. The leaves are about 1-5 inches in length and have jagged edges. They oppose each other as they grow up the stalk which is covered in little hairs that sting. As the plant matures it is green and no longer purple and the leaves elongate more. A fully mature plant can reach up to 8 feet in height!

If you’re foraging for wild edibles, this plant is so nutrient dense, you’ll definitely want to include it in your diet! You want to harvest nettles in spring as they are young. The mature plants become too fibrous and are not good to eat. Wear gloves as you harvest the nettles, as they do sting, and you can harvest the roots as well. It is vitally important when harvesting any wild plant to always leave some behind, say thank you, and never wipe out an entire batch! When you cook the nettles, they are then safe to eat, and contain so many health benefits (think spinach!). This isn’t a plant you can pick and eat immediately, though, you will always cook nettles.

So, why are Nettles so good for you? They basically contain everything you need!  Nettles are so rich in vitamins and minerals. You’ll find vitamins A, C, K, and several B vitamins as well as minerals calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium and sodium. Nettles contain all of the essential amino acids plus polyphenols such as Kaempferol, quercetin, caffeic acid, coumarins and other flavonoids.  You’ll also find beta carotene, lutein, luteoxanthin and other carotenoids - many of these act as antioxidants inside your body.


Historical Uses of Nettles

So you can eat Stinging Nettles. They are super nutritious. But let’s get into some of the medicinal and historical uses for nettles, as they are numerous!  Perhaps one of the most popular uses for nettles historically is as a treatment for rheumatism.  Nettles have been used both topically (in some interesting ways), and internally to treat arthritis, pain and inflammation.  In my research of Stinging Nettles, I learned about the process of urtification. Some sources say urtication. This is the process in which one was actually flogged with fresh stinging nettle plant in the areas they were affected by pain, arthritis, inflammation and rheumatism. This resulted in a painful itchy rash on the skin, but afterwards, complete soothing and reduction of inflammation in the body.

As it turns out the tiny hairs of the stinging nettle plant contain some powerful components that would make this happen. The tiny little needle like hairs on the plant, trichomes, as they are called, contain a blend of histamine (which causes the itching, redness and swelling), but also acetylcholine, serotonin, and formic acid!

Many Native tribes, almost all of the north American ones, used the Stinging Nettle plant for so many different things. The plant was often used in sweat lodge ceremonies, a healing tradition in which the therapeutic benefits of sweating and detoxing were combined with steam from a variety medicinal herbs that could be tailored for the needs of the participants or the occasion. The nettles were used in the sweat lodge for those who suffered from pain and arthritis. Poultices of the roots, stalks and leaves were applied to stiff, sore joints. The Abnaki created a snuff of the dried and powdered leaves that was used for nosebleeds. The Sioux used a tea to treat urinary issues and benign prostatic hyperplasia. The Kwakiutl, Cowlitz and Lummi used a decoction of the leaves to relax the muscles during childbirth or as a gynecological treatment to assist in childbirth. (This is also why pregnant women should avoid consuming nettles during pregnancy as they can stimulate uterine contractions.)  The Cherokee used nettles as a digestive aid and many other tribes drank the tea as an overall health tonic.

The uses of the Stinging Nettle plant go beyond dietary and medicinal. The mature plant contains fibers that were so useful in every day life for indigenous peoples. Fibers were used for cordage, bow strings for hunting, fishing line, nets for trapping and sewing materials and textiles. Dyes were also sometimes made with the leaves. – Native American Ethnobotany, Daniel E. Moerman 

The Power of Healing

In the book The Song of Seven Herbs by Walking Night Bear and Stan Padilla, there is a beautiful and moving story about the Stinging Nettle as the earth’s first healing plant, how she was created by the Creator of all Good Things to heal the people who were sick in their blood, body and spirit. With the help of the sun, moon, rain, storms and stars, this beautiful plant grew and it made her so happy to help the sick people, but due to overharvesting and being taken for granted by the people, she started to get scarce and this made her so sad. It made the sun and the moon and the creator sad too, so she was given the stinging hairs to protect herself and to remind the people to say thank you to her before they used her for her healing medicine. I bought this book for my son to begin teaching him about plants and I highly recommend it! 

It has truly been a pleasure to share with you about this bountiful gift, the Stinging Nettle.  As you enjoy your springtime foraging, I would like to leave you with a bit of native wisdom from the Kiowa – “Walk lightly in the spring; Mother Earth is pregnant.”

You can shop for Stinging Nettle in my apothecary here. I sell the herb dried, which makes for a great tea!