Summer is just about here and with it comes the beauty of the season. Green is everywhere, numerous flowers have already bloomed and gone and the temperatures are perfect. It’s a paradise for most, but let’s face it: if you are one in 50 million Americans who suffers from seasonal allergies, then it might not be such a welcoming season. You might even find yourself wishing winter was still here so that you could feel normal again.
There is no cure for allergies, but fortunately with proper preparation and regimen, they can be minimized significantly. In addition, there are a few herbs that have been used to help the body adjust to seasonal pollen.
Enter the Stinging Nettle, a rock star of an herb known mostly for its ability to keep allergies at bay. However, its real fame is due to its lesser-known uses as a nutritious source of food, versatile medicine and overall tonic herb throughout history.
Facts & Folklore
Though most people claim they have never actually seen Stinging Nettles, it is very likely they have felt its presence walking through the woods, fishing near streambeds or simply weeding the garden. If brushed up against, Nettles leave a warm, itchy rash on the skin reminding you to be more cautious when it’s around.
Nettles make up a tribe of over 500 different species from tropical to temperate zones all over the world. The two species found most often in North America are Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica) and Canada Nettle (Laportea canadensis).
Nettle has an interesting history and has been used extensively in various cultures around the world. In 17th century Europe, it was used for a number of ailments from painful urination to hair loss. Many of the early Southern Appalachian settlers brought the knowledge of the plant’s use from Europe, where it was used to cure arthritis by rubbing a freshly-picked plant onto the affected joints. It was also used as a cure for fevers, colds and flus.
Though many native tribes may think of nettles as a plant introduced by the settlers, it was used extensively by Cherokee in the Southeast. Some uses were to encourage milk in new mothers, for “poor blood”, male prostate complaints, urinary inflammation and hair grooming.
The mature stalks of the nettles contain durable fibers which have been used throughout history to make rope, netting and clothing. Not only is the fiber strong, but it also has been shown to be resistant to decay. In fact, ancient Chinese burial sites have been found to have 2000 year old nettle linen clothing perfectly preserved.
The use of nettles linen also goes back to the Bronze Age, where the name was believed to mean “textile plant.” The latin name, Urtica dioica, actually derives from the words uro (to burn), in reference to the sting-like reaction if not handled properly, and dioica (translates to two houses) a tribute to the fact that a plant will bear either male or female flowers.
Stinging nettles are covered with tiny hairs that contain formic acid and histamines. When touched, the hairs break and release the constituents, causing an irritating sensation on the skin. The irritation is actually beneficial to humans because it encourages the dissolving of uric acid in stiff joints. However, the same substances are highly toxic to insects, and if “stung”, may cause genetic damage to the insects’ larvae for future generations.
Nettles have also been used to create heat, or movement of blood through the body. Its power was so well known, that Ceasar’s troops brought the nettles into colder regions with them because they believed they would need to flail themselves with the plant to keep warm.
In addition to its use for relieving allergies, Stinging Nettle is used for a wide range of other ailments, including its role in treatment for painful rheumatism, eczema and for skin rashes. It is an effective herb for muscle soreness, tissue acidity and kidney disease. There have even been some case studies where Nettles have been shown to bring an inactive thyroid back to normal functioning levels.
Because of its high iron content, its reputation for treating anemia is second to none. It has also been used to remove stagnant mucus, to cleanse the kidneys, to nourish the adrenal glands, build tissue strength, stimulate the large intestine, help in the passing of kidney stones, encourage hair growth, cleanse the blood, reduce fever, relieve asthma, stabilize blood sugar and soothe hemorrhoids. Women find the herb to be a highly beneficial source of nutrients when pregnant or nursing.
The young greens are a wonderful spring tonic and a packed-full of high amounts of iron, trace minerals, vitamins A, B & C, potassium, protein, fiber, calcium, magnesium and chlorophyll.
1 pound sweet Italian sausage, casings removed (optional)
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
2 pounds organic asparagus, trimmed
1 medium organic white onion, diced
5 cups loose stinging nettle leaves (see note); baby spinach can be substituted
2 cups fresh or frozen organic peas
6 tablespoons unsalted organic butter
1/2 cup all-purpose unbleached white flour
4 1/2 cups whole organic milk
1/2 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese
4 ounces mild goat cheese
Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
2 lemons, very thinly sliced
12 no-boil lasagna noodles
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Prepare stinging nettle leaves (see note above), and prepare asparagus: Cut the tips off of each asparagus spear and reserve them. Then cut asparagus spears into 1/2-inch pieces and set aside.
In a large saucepan over medium high heat, cook sausage, breaking up pieces, until no longer pink, about 6 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer sausage to paper towel-lined plate.
Into same saucepan, add 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil, then the pieces of asparagus spears. Sauté asparagus until crisp-tender, about 4 minutes. Remove from pan and set aside.
Add remaining olive oil to pan and add diced onion and sauté until just softened and beginning to turn golden brown, about 3 minutes. Add stinging nettle leaves and sauté until wilted and cooked through, about 3 more minutes. Remove from heat and set aside.
Cover lemon slices with cold water by 3 inches in a saucepan. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat; simmer for 7 minutes. Transfer to a paper-towel-lined plate using a slotted spoon.
Make the roux: Melt butter in a different saucepan over high heat. Stir in flour; cook for 2 minutes. Whisk in milk. Bring to a boil, stirring. Reduce heat. Simmer for 1 minute. Remove from heat. Whisk in Parmesan and goat cheese, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper.
Spread 1/4 cup of the roux in a 9-by-13-inch baking dish, then top with a layer of noodles. Top with sautéed asparagus, half the sausage, one third of the remaining roux, and another layer of noodles. Top that with sautéed nettles and onions, peas, half the remaining roux, half the lemon slices, the remaining sausage and another layer of noodles. Arrange the remaining lemon slices and the reserved asparagus tips on the top layer, then pour on the remaining roux.
Cover dish with parchment-lined aluminum foil and bake 28 minutes, until top is golden and bubbly. (You may want to finish it under a broiler for 2 minutes.) Let stand 10 minutes.