The common nettle, or ‘stinger’ as it’s best known, is a powerful and much underestimated plant within the wild food chain. Despised by many for its painful sting and ability to spread in vegetable gardens, the nettle is high in nutritional value, and an excellent source of vitamin C and iron.
Stinging nettle is a large, rhizomatous perennial wild edible plant that can grow quite tall. Originally from Europe and Asia, this plant has sharp hairs that break easily and can irritate or sting when the plant is touched; however it is a vitamin-rich food source as well as a remedy for various medical conditions. Stinging nettle has been used for hundreds of years to treat painful muscles and joints, eczema, arthritis, gout, and anemia. Fibrous stems of mature plants can be used to make twine, fishing nets, snares and other items. Nettles were traditionally dried and fed to livestock throughout winter. In Europe the plants are harvested commercially for extraction of the chlorophyll, which is used as a safe green colouring agent (E140) in foods. There are between 30 and 45 species of flowering plants of the genus Urtica in the family Urticaceae.
Leaves: This plant has fine toothed, tapered, somewhat heart-shaped leaves that are 3-15 cm. Thin catkins of tiny green flowers grow from the leaf axils.
Height: Generally 1 - 2 metres depending on location and soil condition.
Nettles generally appear in the same locations every year. They thrive in rich soil, moist woodlands, thickets, disturbed areas, along partially shaded trails and riversides. Nettles will begin popping up in early spring, and can be found all across North America. Its proper habitat is in sunny places where there is rich, moist soil. You’ll find them growing along rivers, streams, lakes, ditches, fencerows, and on the edges of cultivated farm fields. When Matt and I walk along one of the nearby rivers, we always notice it growing abundantly as a “weed.”
Stinging nettle will grow in dense clusters, and stalks can reach 5-8 feet at maturity. Leaves are about 2-5 inches long with jagged edges, found in opposing pairs along the upper half of the stalk. Leaves are pointed at the tips, with a heart-shaped base and indented veins. The plant will have small “hairs” up the stalk and stems. (This is where the sting comes from!) Young plants will have smaller, heart-shaped leaves with a purple-ish hue, while the mature plants have longer, pointed leaves that appear very green.
Leaves, stems and roots. Young leaves are preferable however, no matter how far into the growing season be sure to remember that until dried or cooked, stinging nettle leaves will have those stinging hairs – never eat them raw! Nettles make an excellent spinach substitute and can also be added to soups and stews. Nettle beer is brewed from the young shoots. Nettle root is used for medicinal purposes including enlarged prostate and when there is difficulty in urination due to BPH. Nettle tea made from the root can help urinary ailments. Tea made from the leaves is rich in iron and can aid coagulation and the formation of hemoglobin.
Caution: When collecting stinging nettle always cover up all exposed skin. The swollen base of each tiny, hollow hair contains a droplet of formic acid. When the hair tip pierces the skin, the acid makes it into the skin causing anywhere from an annoying itch or burning that can last several minutes or a couple of days. Rubbing the stings with stinging nettle root or jewelweed has been used to suppress the itch/burning sensation.
Nettles can be regarded as a leaf vegetable, once the sting has been neutralised. This is done by means of blanching or boiling, whereby the stinging parts – the formic acid and other constituents – are broken down. Use it as you would spinach, in an Indian sag aloo curry, for instance, or simply steep the leaves in boiling water to make an excellent tea.
The nettles are best at the tips and in early spring they are supercharged with all things good. Collected leaf tips can be gently dried and stored for use throughout the year. The uses for nettles are far reaching: even cordage or twine can be made from the striped and twisted section of the stalks.
Leek and Nettle Soup, Nettle Mustard Pesto, Nettle Pesto, Stinging Nettle Beer, Stinging Nettle Hummus, Stinging Nettle Soup
Stinging nettle definitely lives up to its name – it will sting like crazy if you brush up against it or handle the plants without wearing gloves. But this nuisance of a plant is highly nutritious and readily available in most areas, making it one of the perfect wild plants to consume.
I use the top portion of the plant when it is very young, snipping it off with scissors. The whole plant may be okay to use when it is under ten inches high, but I always leave the bottom half of the plant so that it will regenerate more quickly for a second harvest. As the nettles get bigger I take the new growth only. Never use older, more mature leaves, as they contain substances that irritate your innards. And those buggy leaves? Leave those alone. They are a little bit yucky, and most likely have chemicals in them that the plant is producing to fight the bugs.
When cooked or dried, nettles completely lose their stinging properties, making them perfectly safe for consumption. You can steam, sauté, or boil them and enjoy with a meal or in soups. You can also make a wonderful tea with the leaves, sweetening with honey and lemon. Use them in any dish you would normally use spinach. They have an earthy, wholesome flavor that you’re sure to enjoy if you enjoy other greens.