Can a plant that stings and causes a severe allergic reaction when touched be helpful for treating a host of problems like allergies, eczema and arthritis among others? Believe it or not, but this is the case with the stinging nettle. Classified botanically as Urtica diocia, which is not surprising as urtica is said to be derived from the Latin word urere which means ‘to burn’ [referring to the fine stinging hair on the plant] and urticaria whose medical definition is ‘hives’ [which is the reaction to the sting]. Found in different parts of the world and mostly in North India near the Himalayas, it is called ‘Bichchhu buti, kali, or kandeli’.
Though a menace when touched, stinging nettle has been used since ancient times as an alternative medicine for various ailments. It is believed that cooking, boiling or even drying inactivates the toxic venom and renders it safe for consumption. The young plants are also consumed in various parts of Europe and are known to be highly nutritious as they are rich in iron, calcium, magnesium, potassium, phenols and other naturally occurring antioxidants. Traditionally, different types of concoctions were made with the leaves, stem or roots and taken as tea or used as a tincture to treat urinary tract infections, joint problems or even seasonal allergies.
While handling the plant
Those who live in areas where stinging nettle grows and would like to harvest it, make sure to wear long sleeves and gloves or use tongs when handling these plants. Be warned that touching or accidentally brushing against the stinging nettle will cause a tingling sensation with pain and inflammation at the point of contact that can last for some time. This is due to the sting from the tiny hairs present on the plant that inject plant venom, believed by chemists to be a mixture of acetylcholine, histamine and serotonin. If you do get stung, you can wash the area with soap then take an over–the-counter anti-histamine tablet to reduce the severity of the sting. Or try natural methods like using mashed plantain leaves or a paste of baking powder in water.
If using as an ingredient in your kitchen
For culinary use, the young leaves and tender shoot should be harvested before it starts to flower, as naturopaths believe that the older plants are rich in oxalic acid which may cause kidney stones. Once plucked, they should be washed to remove any surface dirt or grime, pressure cooked [or boiled in water] first, then cut and put into dals and sabjis. You could also make a soup from it like any other green leafy vegetable. The iron content of the nettle is not readily absorbed by the body, but can be beneficial when eaten with a source of vitamin C like a dash of lime, an orange or a glass of lemonade. The Nepalese call stinging nettle as sishnu. Sishnu ko tarkari and shishnu soup are popular dishes in Nepal where it is sold in the local market along with other greens and vegetables. And that’s not all, there’s some exciting news for all wine connoisseurs as in Nepal it is even made into and sold as wine! In the West, people use the boiled leaves in a variety of dishes including salads, pizzas, soups, pastas and pestos.
When consuming it as pills or tea
If you aren’t lucky enough to get fresh nettle, you could buy it in the form of capsules, tablets, dried powders or tea bags, which are available online and in some health stores in India. It is mainly used as a medicinal herb in this form to treat various ailments from urinary tract infections, allergies, joint problems, skin problems, gout and kidney stones. Nettle tea can be made by boiling the dried nettle leaves in water, then straining and having as such or with some lemon, a few sprigs of mint and some honey. If you want a stronger concoction, simply boil a little longer. Large quantities can be made and refrigerated which can be used over three to four days.
Like most herbs, there are little or no scientific studies on the medicinal benefits of the plant and hence it is not widely used. Even the manufacturers of the commercial products in India tend to put out a statutory warning that the claims are not approved by the FDA [Food and Drug Administration in the United States]. Do make sure that your physician is aware of what you are taking.
Using it in your kitchen garden
Stinging nettle is also great as a fertiliser and can be used as green manure. A kind of bokashi mix [those familiar with gardening will know that it is a Japanese term for fermented organic matter which is used as a fertiliser] can be made by putting the leaves in a big bin of water and letting it rot for a week. The liquid then can be diluted and used to water the plants while the remaining solid waste can be used as compost matter.
This was first published in the December 2015 issue of Complete Wellbeing.
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