By Amelia R. Cohn
I was counting on gloves and long sleeves to keep me safe from the sting of nettle. The patch we were working with grows about 15 feet from a freshwater creek, surrounded by national forest. I was feeling brash thanks to my gloves, so I began to mock the plants, insinuating that they would not be able to ‘get’ me thanks to the protective gear around my skin.
My friend looked at me sideways, cautioning me away from my attitude. Fifteen minutes later my wrists were burning from the histamines and formic acid nettles produce. The tiny hairs covering nettle leaves and stems somehow found their way onto my skin, leaving behind the classic sting nettles are known for. I didn’t know it at the time, but I could have placed a poultice of plantain (Plantago major) leaf on my wrists to ease the discomfort. Instead I kept picking and learned to love the sting.
Nettles are known and often recommended for relieving seasonal allergies. The mechanism of action responsible for this is not totally understood. According to one study, nettles’ constituents been shown in vitro to block the Histamine-1 receptor in our bodies. When that receptor is triggered, mast cells release inflammatory chemicals that cause hayfever symptoms such as sneezing, runny nose and itchy eyes.1 If nettles block Histamine-1 in our bodies, then the inflammatory response leading to allergy symptoms never begins. This means we may be able to enjoy spring again without prescriptions or over-the-counter drugs. Instead consider brewing a batch of nettle sun tea for an inexpensive, nutritive and tasty medicine.
When foraging for nettle for the first time, find a knowledgeable person to guide you. Also know the guidelines for ethical harvesting, and don’t take more than you need. It’s important to be aware of toxic lookalikes.
Seek nettle out in the early to late spring when the new growth will be young and fresh. Plan to hike along a stream or river until you come across a patch. Make sure you are in a pollution-free area. You can contact the US Forest Service in advance to see if the area has recently been sprayed with pesticides. Also consider the area upstream: if it has been sprayed, there may be toxic runoff.
Nettles often congregate in the understory of stream-side forests. Wear gloves, long sleeves, and bring scissors to cut off the fresh tips. Have a basket or paper bag to collect your harvest. You can dry the greens or use them fresh.
Dried greens can be used as a nutritious addition to broth, soups (try this one, recommended by Dr. Mahalia Freed) or tea. For allergy relief, it’s best to start consuming nettles 30 days before symptoms are likely to start.
I enjoy nettles alone in a tea or in combination with a variety of nutritive herbs. Try this tea recipe to nurture your body, relax your senses and assist with allergy relief.
Nutritive Tea Recipe
Combine equal amounts of:
- Avena sativa (oats)
- Trifolium pretense (red clover) or Medicago sativa (alfalfa)
- Rubus occidentalis (raspberry leaves)
- Urtica dioica (nettles)
- Mentha spicata (spearmint) or Mentha piperita (peppermint)
- Bonus ingredient: Fresh Stevia rebaudiana (Stevia) leaf for a hint of sweet!
Use 1-2 tablespoons of the herbal mixture (depending on desired strength) in a loose-leaf tea strainer. Place the tea in your favorite mug, add hot water, allow it to steep for five minutes. Add honey or sweetener if desired. Enjoy!
- Roschek B, Fink RC, McMichael M, Alberte RS. Nettle extract (Urtica dioica) affects key receptors and enzymes associated with allergic rhinitis. Phyther Res. 2009;23(7):920-926. doi:10.1002/ptr.2763.
Amelia R. Cohn is a student of naturopathic medicine at National University of Natural Medicine. Her interest in plants started in 2004 with an assignment to identify forage crops growing in her horse’s pasture. The promise of botanical wisdom inspires her to keep exploring.