Most people see nettles as just a pesky weed that causes an unpleasant sting, however, experts say this common plant is an indigenous species packed with medicinal benefits. So, next time you come across a nettle plant, don’t just brush it off as an annoyance – take a closer look and discover the many ways it can help improve your well-being.
According to Babalwa Mpambani, an agronomist from the Eastern Cape, two types of nettles are found in South Africa. They are Urtica urens, also known as dwarf nettle, and Urtica dioica, or stinging nettle.
These nettles have more uses than being simply plants – they are considered wild vegetables or medicinal weeds and belong to the Urticaceae family, which is native to Eurasia.
Dwarf nettles and stinging nettles may seem similar at first glance, but they are in fact quite different. While dwarf nettles live for a single season, stinging nettles can survive for several years.
Though both nettles are known for their medicinal and nutritional properties, there is little information available on how to grow them, likely because they are often overlooked as weeds, Mpambani explains.
Important role in ecosystem
Mpambani says although considered weeds by many, nettles play a key role in the natural world. These hardy plants prefer moist, fertile soil and can often be found growing in dense clumps in shady areas near rivers.
Despite their uninviting appearance, nettles are incredibly resilient and resourceful, able to spread quickly and crowd out other vegetation. Their presence may not be welcome in many gardens, but their role in the ecosystem is undeniable.
In addition to being resilient, nettles are also very versatile. They can adapt to a wide range of soil types and moisture levels, and even survive freezing temperatures. These qualities make nettles hard to get rid of but also allow them to thrive in a variety of habitats.
“The plant can be harvested regularly during the growing season and is best when it is less than knee high. Both species grow upright, and the leaves and stems are covered with stinging hairs. Nettles produce inconspicuous green-white flowers in late spring or summer,” explains Mpambani.
Mpambani further says that stinging nettles have a number of uses in organic farming. Not only can they be used as fertilisers, but they also serve as companion plants for vegetables. This is because they regulate the iron content in the soil and strengthen other plants growing nearby.
“They are also great to add to the compost pile and will hasten breakdown,” Mpambani says.
For Mlise Maxongo, growing up in the Eastern Cape meant being surrounded by nature, including nettles. From a young age, he learned about the medicinal benefits of nettles, particularly their ability to ease coughs. This sparked an interest in the healing power of plants, which Maxongo still values to this day.
Maxongo adds that in his community, the nettles are used to treat skin problems. For example, they would crush the leaves into a paste and apply it to the affected area to help clear up ringworm or heal wounds.
Other ways of using nettles
Nettles can be a delicious and nutritious addition to a meal, such as imifino, a traditional Mzansi vegetable dish. Mpambani cautions that nettles should be cooked prior to eating, to neutralise the compounds that cause stinging and itching. These compounds include histamine, formic acid, acetylcholine, acetic acid, butyric acid, leukotrienes, 5-hydroxytryptamine, and other irritants.
Mpambani notes that nettles have a wide range of traditional uses. Particularly for inflammation, cardiovascular health, and urinary tract health. The plant is a natural diuretic, which can help to cleanse the body and reduce inflammation. Studies have shown that nettles may be effective in treating a variety of conditions, including rheumatic pain, arthritis, and gout.
“It also builds energy, strengthens the adrenals, and is said to restore youthful flexibility to blood vessels.”
From preventing hair loss to nourishing the body
Furthermore, nettles is also reputed to help prevent hair loss; and can be used as an analgesic for pain. Nettles are rich in calcium and contain generous amounts of bone-building magnesium, potassium, silicon, boron, and zinc. They are also high in vitamin C and an excellent source of vitamins A, D, E, and K.
For internal use, an infusion (tea) is made from the dried or fresh leaves to treat anaemia, kidney stones, haemorrhage (especially of the uterus), heavy menstrual bleeding, haemorrhoids, arthritis, gout, rheumatism, skin complaints and especially eczema. Both the leaves and roots are used to treat allergies, and for prostate enlargement, the roots are used, Mpambani concludes.
However, as with any other medicinal plant, consult your doctor to check if it’s safe for you to use, especially if you’re suffering from any chronic diseases.
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