The first Nettles (Urtica dioica) harvest is easily one of my most eagerly anticipated harvests of spring. To me, spring hasn’t truly sprung until the Nettles are here. When it comes to harvesting Nettles, one of the first things folks always ask is, “But don’t they sting?” They do.
The next question is, “Do you wear gloves?” My answer? Nope. You’d be hard-pressed to find an herbalist who doesn’t choose to harvest Nettles bare-handed at least once a season on purpose. Why? Because the sting, just like almost every other part of the plant, is medicinal!
And although it’s true that they do leave a stinging/tingling sensation on the skin and in some cases mild hives -- especially if it’s a more sensitive area like the anterior forearm -- what’s also true is that on every continent where Nettles occur there follows a folk tradition of purposefully being stung by them for arthritic pain and swelling, a practice called urtication. This used to be common knowledge here in the U.S. and beyond, and considering the prevalence of arthritis, perhaps it’s time to bring urtication back into the mainstream!
A family member of mine who suffers from arthritis in their thumbs finds immediate relief from urtication. Recently, a student shared a story of finding relief from an arthritic hip after she harvested Nettles bare-handed -- in this case the affected area wasn’t even directly stung. And in a class I took with Linda Black Elk, ethnobotanist and member of the Catawba Nation, she shared numerous first-hand experiences of the powers of urtication and vouched for this folk use still in practice today among the Lakota at the Standing Rock Reservation where she lives.
Here’s how you do it: Harvest a few stalks of Nettles (it’s ok if they’re in flower or seed) and give a firm slap with them directly onto the arthritic area followed by a quick brush over the area. Repeat for 5-10 minutes or until the stingers have all worn-off on that bundle, getting a fresh bundle if necessary. This can be done daily if you have access to fresh Nettles, or as-needed for arthritic flair-ups. The relief often lasts 6-12 hours between treatments.
Nettle is rendered harmless from drying, cooking, fermenting, making medicine (tea/tincture/vinegar/etc), and blending fresh in a blender/food processor. Whether you choose to harvest bare-handed or not, my hope is to shine a light on the benefits the often maligned sting of Nettles can provide.
Wishing you all happy harvesting and happy spring, and if you have any direct experience with urtication I’d love to hear your stories -- share them in the comments below!