Nettle is a wonderfully versatile wild herb, that has medicinal properties and is also edible, but many people overlook it because they don't recognize it. An herbal novice tends to picture violent prickles when they think of nettle (especially if you think of “stinging nettle” in particular). Tough thorny leaves are found with thistles, not nettle! A nettle plant is very understated and has a tendency to blend in due to being a little unremarkable in appearance.
Nettle is usually a single stalk with pairs of leaves along the length of the stem. It can sometimes branch out but it's not a big bushy plant by any means. The leaves are pointed ovals, with even serrations (or teeth) along the edges.
I always find that a nettle plant looks a little droopy, as the leaves tend to sag rather than hold themselves upright. Nettle can grow to around 3 feet or more in height. Smaller nettle plants may look a little like mint but have sharper serrations and more pointed leaves than mint.
The sting from a stinging nettle isn't from thorns or needles, but rather the very fine hairs along the leaves. They contain a protective compound that burns the skin on contact. Definitely wear gloves when you harvest nettle. For the forager, you cannot eat nettle raw! The chemicals that gives the leaves their sting will neutralize in heat, so you'll have to cook your nettles. I have yet to try this but I hope to try eating nettles later this season. I'll let you know how that goes.
Nettle grows in a variety of environments, sometimes doing fine in shade as well as full sun. I have a local patch on the far side of our barn that is in shade all day, but there is also a great stand of plants out in the field with no shade at all.
Properties of Nettle (Urtica dioica)
Dried nettle makes delightful tea with a number of well-known health benefits.
It can help reduce inflammation in the body 1, as well as improve liver health 3 and promote general detoxing. As a great diuretic 4, it can help with UTIs and reduce bloating from water retention.
Nettle is probably best known for its diuretic properties, but it has started getting some attention as a natural tool in balancing blood sugar2.
Nettle tea has that usual earthy/green taste which is very nice on its own or mixed with sweetener if you prefer. I add a few leaves of fresh mint if it's available. You should not have nettle tea if you are pregnant or breast-feeding, which is generally good advice for most herbal medicine.
If you are doing any nettle wildcrafting and get “stung”, make sure not to scratch or rub the area. Wash with soap and water as soon as you can. Taking an antihistamine can help reduce the itching. If you are familiar with other plants in the area, using a fresh dock or jewelweed leaf can also be helpful.