Ortegilla (Spanish). Family: Urticaceae. Genus/species: Urtica dioica.
Nettles, also called Stinging Nettles, can be found growing near water or streams throughout North America. Nettle is one of those plants that many people despise because if you brush up against it, it will sting you. The stinging property of nettles is due to the presence of formic acid in the tiny little tube-like hairs on the leaves. When you brush by the plant, this irritating acid is deposited on your skin, causing burning, itching and redness. The medical term for this irritation of the skin is urticaria, which comes from the genus of the nettle plant.
This truly remarkable plant has many uses including food, medicine and even fertilizer.
As food, nettles can contain up to 40 percent protein (hamburger is just 25 percent protein). Nettles can be eaten in the same manner as spinach, chard, or other greens and when cooked loses all of its stinging properties. The famous Tibetan monk Milarepa is said to have eaten nothing but nettles for 12 years while living in a cave. It is told that his skin turned green from living on a diet of only nettles.
To prepare fresh nettle leaves, sauté in a little butter or add to soups. Nettle contains over 1 percent free calcium, making it a great source of this important mineral, and it is very high in iron. Due to its high mineral content, nettle is often found in teas to support pregnancy.
Nettles are also effective in treating the symptoms of allergies. The fresh forms (fresh liquid extract or freeze-dried in capsules) are most effective. The dry form of the plant is somewhat less effective for allergy symptoms.
As medicine for the urinary tract, nettles contain an additional acid called phosphoric acid which makes the urine pH lower – more acid – treating many common bladder infections caused by bacteria that thrive in alkaline – high pH – urine. The phosphoric acid also acts as an astringent causing the bacteria to lose their “grip” on the bladder wall and be more easily flushed out of the body. Research has shown the root of the nettle plant blocks an enzyme called 5-alpha reductase. Blocking this enzyme helps prevent the conversion of good testosterone into the undesirable dihydrotestosterone that reduces libido and is linked to the prostate problem in men called benign prostatic hypertrophy.
Finally, as a fertilizer, the phosphoric acid in nettles is a source of the mineral phosphorus, which supports growth and vitality in plants. If you are lucky enough to have nettles growing nearby, simply cut the plant and allow it to rot in a bucket of water for a week or so, and then water your garden, trees or house plants with the liquid.
Rob Hawley owns Taos Herb Company. For information: (575) 758-1991 or www.taosherb.com