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Plant Defenses and Human Benefits

“One day he saw some country people busily engaged in pulling up nettles; he examined the plants, which were uprooted and already dried, and said: 'They are dead. Nevertheless, it would be a good thing to know how to make use of them. When the nettle is young, the leaf makes an excellent vegetable; when it is older, it has filaments and fibres like hemp and flax. Nettle cloth is as good as linen cloth. Chopped up, nettles are good for poultry; pounded, they are good for horned cattle. The seed of the nettle, mixed with fodder, gives gloss to the hair of animals; the root, mixed with salt, produces a beautiful yellow coloring-matter. Moreover, it is an excellent hay, which can be cut twice. And what is required for the nettle? A little soil, no care, no culture. Only the seed falls as it is ripe, and it is difficult to collect it. That is all. With the exercise of a little care, the nettle could be made useful; it is neglected and it becomes hurtful. It is exterminated. How many men resemble the nettle!' He added, after a pause: ‘Remember this, my friends: there are no such things as bad plants or bad men. There are only bad cultivators.’” 
-Victor Hugo, Les Miserables

Thank you Victor Hugo, nettles deserve all the praise and attention they can get. I’ve been reading another book, The Law of Dreams, about the Irish potato famine and nettles have already been mentioned multiple times in the first few chapters---a food that kept them alive when much else had failed. 

A collector of plant stories, I love finding these nuggets of mention in literature. Last week, since we were discussing polyphenols in my biochemistry class, I had the opportunity to root around in scientific papers for some nettle love. 

 Polyphenols are the micronutrients plants possess to keep themselves well from uv radiation and pathogens. They also happen to be antioxidants for humans.  When we eat them on the regular, they can protect us from the laundry list of chronic health conditions---cancers, diabetes, heart disease, etc. (Pandey & Rizvi, 2009)  They also can directly alter our cell membranes, improving cell to cell communication, which may have implications for brain health (Tarahovsky, 2008).

 Many herbs, vegetables, and wild plants especially, are loaded with these beneficial compounds, of which there are 8,000 types, though nettle stands out as a star. This why you hear over and over again, eat a diversity of plants! We need an abundance and a variety to keep our cells humming and safe.

One paper that measured nettles with other common wild herbs, including dandelion, goutweed, and chickweed found that nettles were “richest in individual polyphenols” comparatively (Augspole et al., 2017, pg. 38). Cue applause for the nettle!

Another paper found that one gram of stinging nettle contains twice the amount of phenolic content than 100mL of cranberry juice, 129mg v. 66.61 mg (Kregiel et al., 2018).  Nettle inflorescence extracts (aerial parts containing the flower) were found to possess the most phenolic power, richest in cholorogenic acid, rutin, and isoquercetin (Kregiel et al., 2018). 

 So what is a good dose of this fine food? How about everyday, as much as possible, while the plants are in season?! We’re meant to be drinking in plants right now, our bodies are hungry for these compounds most of us have been lacking for a long stretch of winter. So eat up!  

Want to get nerdy on polyphenols? Check out some of the references for more information.            


Augspole, I., Department of Chemistry, Faculty of Food Technology, Latvia University of Agriculture, Iela, L., Lv–, J., … Latvia University of Agriculture. (2017). Phenolic profile of fresh and frozen nettle, goutweed, dandelion and chickweed leaves. doi:10.22616/foodbalt.2017.028

Kregiel, D., Pawlikowska, E., & Antolak, H. (2018). Urtica spp.: Ordinary Plants with Extraordinary Properties. Molecules , 23(7). doi:10.3390/molecules23071664

Tarahovsky, Y. (2008). Plant polyphenols in cell-cell interaction and communication. Plant Signaling & Behavior, 3(8), 609-611. doi: 10.4161/psb.3.8.6359

Pandey, K. B., & Rizvi, S. I. (2009). Plant polyphenols as dietary antioxidants in human health and disease. Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity, 2(5), 270–278.