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Why Does the Nettle Bite?

Most people label nettle as an unfriendly plant that grows everywhere and bites you like an “electric weed”. As the English says “stinging nettle stings”.

Common nettle or stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) belongs to the genus Urtica. The latin name derived from “uro” or “urere”, to burn, referring to the burning properties of the fluid it contains. The ability to sting is due to the fine hair-like structures covering the stems and leaves of the plant. Nettle is well armed by these hollow hairs and their swollen base contain a cocktail of chemicals, such as serotonin, histamine, folic acid, acetylcholine, moroidin, leukotrienes and formic acid. These hairs are very brittle and break easily. It’s an important adaptation for the plant to deter nibbling predators and humans also. Without these painful stings, everyone would eat poor nettle.

Painful as are the consequences of touching a common nettle, they are far exceeded by the effects of handling some of the East Indian species. The pain extends and continues for many hours or even days. In case of the Indonesian Urtica urentissima, the burning pain lasts for a year, they call it the “devil’s leaf”. Fortunately, we grow the much kinder and well behaved nettle in Europe.

Because nettle will lose its irritant powers during cooking, the young shoots may be used for culinary purposes. Luckily, dried nettle is perfectly stinging-free too.

So, don’t let the stinging hairs scare you away from this incredible herb!

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