My son Sebastian, and I had just arrived at a patch of Toothwort. Our plans were to dig up the roots of a few plants- Toothwort roots make a great ingredient in the preparation of a condiment for meats. As we began prying up a few plants, we started experiencing a stinging sensation in our hands. We each had the same thought- fire ants. As we rubbed our hands to extinguish the itchy pain, we scanned the ground in search of the fire ants. We didn't see any. Sebastian then pointed at a plant and asked- "Is that plant stinging us?" The plant in question looked innocuous. It appeared to be a little mint plant. I didn't think that it was the culprit and as it was growing dark outside, we decided to give up on our Toothwort excavation expedition and return home. The unknown stinging had definitely spooked us and dampened our enthusiasm.
As we were returning back to the house, I was thinking about the case of "The Mysterious Stinging Assailant." For obvious reasons, the plant Stinging Nettle came to mind. However, I had never encountered it before, so I was doubtful about it being the culprit. Upon arriving home, I looked up "Stinging Nettle" in my field guide. Sebastian's intuition had been correct- it had been that innocent looking little 8" plant that had been stinging us. The plant was a close cousin to the Stinging Nettle: the innocent sounding Wood Nettle. And so it was that I started to become more acquainted with the Wood Nettle, its folklore and its food uses.
And it all begins with the sting. Each "hair" along the stem of the Wood Nettle is more like a tiny hypodermic needle than a hair. In fact, it is thought the the word "nettle" is derived from the Anglo-Saxon word of "netel" which was said to have been derived from the word "noedl" which meant "needle." (A Modern Herbal; Grieves). The chemicals that cause the burning and stinging sensation are stored in a bulb at the base of the needle. Whenever something brushes up against it, the tip of the needle breaks off and its chemicals are injected into the plant's attacker. Scientists have identified the chemicals that are injected from the Stinging Nettle to be: Acetylcholine, histamine, and serotonin. It is thought that the chemicals are the same or similar for the Wood Nettle.
The sting of the Wood Nettle hurts, but it isn't as severe as the sharp pain of a wasp sting or a bee sting. However, the pain does feel very much like the sting of a fire ant, or the dull ache of a paper cut. In our experience, the itchy pain lasted for about 5 minutes, albeit, a long 5 minutes. It seems that the dull pain caused by contact with the nettle is useful in the treatment against other pains that a person may have- it has been used by many for arthritis and rheumatism pain relief. (One rheumatism remedy involved 'urtication'- that is- flogging one's self with a nettle plant. Ouch.)
The leaves of the Wood Nettle are also useful for food or as a tea. My daughter Kelsey helped prepare a Potato like soup using the Wood Nettle leaves as the main ingredient. Reference sources such as Wikipedia indicate that Nettle leaves taste similar to Spinach, which we found to be the case, although, I actually preferred the taste of the Nettles over the taste of Spinach. Nettle leaves are also high in Vitamins A, C, and K.
But wait, there's more. The Iroquois tribe used a decoction of the plant as a treatment against depression- or as they were quoted by ethnobotonists: "to counteract loneliness because your woman has left" or "when your woman goes off and won't come back." (Native American Ethnobotony; Daniel E. Moerman) Is it just me, or does it seem like more than coincidence that one of the chemicals in the "sting" of the nettle is serotonin- and the Iroquois knew to use nettle as a treatment for depression? Prozac, Zoloft, and several other modern anti-depressant drugs also center around the chemical serotonin.
Still not impressed by the nettles? Consider this- it is also useful in the production of cloth. Its fiber is similar to the fiber of hemp and flax. Hans Christian Anderson wrote a fairy-tale titled "The Princess and the Eleven Swans". In the story, the princess made a coat from nettles for each of the eleven swans. In World War I the Germans even made some of their clothing from nettles. (A Modern Herbal; Grieves) Nettle clothes can still be purchased today. Sample nettle clothing website. (Note, I know nothing about this company- whether good or bad- I am providing a link because they have photographs of clothing made from nettle plants.)
The scientific name of Wood Nettle is Laportea canadensis. According to an University of Wisconsin website (source), Laportea was named for Francois de Laportea, Count of Castenlau, an entomologist of the 19th century.