Those were the days when the cane was not spared to discipline mischievous kids. Dreadful though that was, it effectively deterred our young minds from committing the mischief of imps and shaped us into fine people. Then there were few other little friends of ours being disciplined with the stinging nettle. And that really, really hurts. The stinging nettle can be a harmful plant, even on contact. It has sharp hairs on its leaves, filled with histamine, acetylcholine, formic acid and serotonin that can pierce the skin and release the chemicals that sting and burn painfully, though only for a few hours.
Feeding an increasing population is a real challenge the world’s governments face today. Do you know that according to FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation) estimates, 795 million people go hungry every day? And do you know there are about 300,000 known plant species in the world, of which about 7000 have been cultivated throughout human history? Yet only 150 to 200 of these plants are used for food. Again, for 95% of food energy needs only about 30 crops are consumed; with rice, wheat, maize and potato providing for 60% of the needs. Still, there is not enough to feed an increasingly hungry population and heal an increasingly sick population. In this bleak scenario, perhaps a turn to local, non-commercial plants like nettle might be an option to explore, not only food but also for medicine.
Versatile and Stinging Nettle
Fortunately, awareness is steadily growing about non-commercial plant resources that not only have nutritional value but also pharmacological or medicinal values. These are the local plant resources or landraces that are still left untouched, genetically. It is like going back to tradition with a scientific twist as ever-advancing research keeps unveiling the immense and irreplaceable benefits these plant resources provide. Among Nature’s most amazing plants, nutritionally and therapeutically, is the Stinging Nettle or simply Nettle (Urtica dioica) of the plant family Urticaceae. Traditionally, many societies in the world use it as food. In some Himalayan regions, they call it the poor man’s diet because of its great nutritional value and abundant supply. People the world over utilise it as medicine for treating a variety of ailments such as asthma, diabetes, blood pressure, stress, depression, anaemia, benign prostatic hypertrophy (BPH), problems of the kidneys and many others. In homoeopathy, the remedy Urtica urens made from the plant is prescribed to treat certain diseases like gout, allergy, nettle-rash, and herpes.
Stinging Nettle in Nature
Nettle grows naturally and profusely in temperate regions of the world. Although used as food and medicine mostly by rural communities, recent scientific studies made on it have led to discoveries of an amazing and diverse range of usefulness – socioeconomic, culinary, therapeutic and environmental. These wild and edible rhizomatous perennials can grow up to 2 metres high. Nettles have finely serrated leaves lined with sharp, though easily breaking, hairs called trichomes that irritate the skin upon touch. They adapt easily to environmental stress. This is noted from the fact that their distribution has remained unchanged for as many as 5-6 decades. Nettles love phosphate-rich soils, which is why they are found mostly near human habitats.
The plant's array of compounds puts nettle among the richest sources of proteins, minerals, vitamins and phytochemicals, high in food and therapeutic value. Particularly rich Vitamin C, protein, iron, calcium and magnesium, nettle can also be processed for vitamin A (beta-carotene). Its protein content is 26% and calcium 5.09%. There are also vitamins A, B1, B2, E and K and trace elements of Copper, Zinc, Manganese and Cobalt. The essential amino acids present are threonine, valine, isoleucine, leucine, phenylalanine, lysine, histidine and methionine. Nettle is found to have higher concentrations of essential amino acids than other green vegetables, better as a source than almonds, beans and chicken. Oleic and linoleic acids present in young leaves make the plant a great source of unsaturated fatty acids. Nettle has rich amounts of phytochemical compounds such as flavonoids, carotenoids, phenols, hydroxyl fatty acids, phenols, lignans and a host of other compounds. These phytochemicals give nettle its properties to cure a variety of diseases.
Nettle tea can be made from roots or fresh or dried leaves, mixed with honey, either by themselves or blended with other teas to make for nutritious drinks, rich in iron, calcium and magnesium and aiding blood coagulation and haemoglobin formation. Or, nettle can be infused into breads and soups as seasonings.
Pharmacological Uses of Nettle
For centuries nettle has been used in many traditional systems of medicine across the globe in China, India, Turkey, Russia and Europe. The methods applied are in the form of tinctures, ointments, or as supplements. Not only are humans treated but animals also. Clinical studies have established its multi-faceted usefulness. The antioxidant character of nettle is great for decreasing cholesterol levels. Its anti-inflammatory, anti-tumour, anti-microbial, anti-bacterial and anti-viral properties makes it ideal for tackling diseases such as allergies, burns, kidney stones, liver problems, internal bleeding, nose bleeding, diabetes, blood pressure, skin rashes, eczema, rheumatism, gout, coughs and colds, diarrhoea, hay fever, gynaecological problems, urinary problems, tuberculosis and many other ailments. The wide-ranging therapeutic properties of nettle come from every part of the plant - root, stem, flowers, leaves and seeds. It also enhances the body’s antioxidant mechanism against free radicals. Toxicity is low if used as prescribed, with side effects reduced to mild stomach upsets, rashes and fluid retention. Nettle should, however, never be used on open wounds. Pregnant and lactating women should avoid it or consult a physician first.
Nettle's Other Uses
Food and medicine apart, nettle is great raw material for making fibres, cords, yarns and herbal dyes. Strong and versatile as jute and flax, and equally biodegradable and sustainable, nettle’s fibres have the potential to replace cotton which is a pesticide-intensive plant. As compost material, it forms excellent humus, adding to the nitrogen content of the manure. Nettle population encourages anti-aphid insects, thus acting as bio-control agents against pests. In the management of layer chickens, adding nettle powder to the hens’ feeds helps increase egg production.
Promoting the Amazing World of Heirloom Plants
In the race for food security, agricultural and horticultural departments across the globe seem to have bypassed Nature’s own diversity. In Zizira it is our endeavour to once again look into this lost world of landrace and heirloom plants to rediscover their richness and unfailing capacity to feed, heal and enrich the planet. Maybe you would like to learn more about us.