All About Stinging Nettles (aka Urtica dioica)

Use this abundant weed instead of spinach. It's more nutritious, and it's free!

_MG_1278.jpg
stinging nettel. Ellen Zachos

About The Nettle Plant

My first encounter with stinging nettles was painful and unexpected. I stepped on one with a bare foot and knew immediately what I'd done. My foot swelled up and stayed that way for a few hours; the itching and redness lasted a few hours more. This didn't make me any less eager to harvest stinging nettles, although it did make me more careful in my pursuit of this tasty spring green.

While some of my foraging friends claim to be able to pick nettles without getting stung, I use leather gloves to protect my hands. And still I end up kneeling on them or backing up into a big patch as I'm trying to take a photograph. If that's the price of harvesting this delicious wild edible, well, I guess it's worth it.

There are several species of edible nettles, but the stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) is the most common. A subspecies, U. dioica subspecies gracilis was one considered to be a separate species but no longer. Its leaves are slightly thinner than those of plain old U. dioica, but it is still immediately recognizable as a stinging nettle.

Stinging nettle is a perennial weed that reproduces (very successfully) by seed and by underground rhizomes. Nettles are an adaptable plant. They're most common in moist soils near streams and in shady woods, but you'll also find them in sunny fields as long as there's adequate moisture.

The plant can grow to be two to six feet tall, depending on growing conditions. Its leaves are pointy and roughly toothed, and the flowers are small and green, originating in short chains from the leaf axils. In appearance, stinging nettle slightly resembles mint, but it has no smell and packs a meaner punch.

The stems and undersides of stinging nettle leaves are covered with tiny, hollow hairs (trichomes) that contain several chemicals including histamine and formic acid. When the hairs are broken, they release the chemicals, which causes the infamous sting.

Nettles are most tender and tasty in spring, before they flower. Use sturdy gloves (the hairs can penetrate loosely woven cloth) to pick the top several pairs of leaves and stem, and harvest before the plant blooms. By the time the plant has flowered, the stems and leaves have become tough and fibrous. Also, some people believe that mature nettles may irritate the urinary tract or contribute to the formation of kidney stones. I haven't found any peer-reviewed science to support this, but would advise you to err on the side of caution. (Besides, nettles don't taste as good when they're at the flowering stage, and I'm all about wild deliciousness.)

If you find a good nettle patch, visit early and often. By harvesting every week or so, you can prolong the tasty season.

Snipping off the top six to eight inches of stem prevents the plant from producing flowers and lets you harvest for months instead of weeks. Since this is a weed that often occurs in great abundance, you don't need to be shy about harvesting. This is a foraged green to stock up on and savor throughout the year.

Foraging tip: if you get stung by nettles, look around for curly dock. Pick a few of the young leaves from the center of the plant, and mash them up to expose the mucilage, then apply this to the sting. The swelling won't go down, but it should relieve some of the pain.

Cooking Nettles

Nettle stingers are destroyed by cooking and drying, so you have choices if you want to preserve them. Some people dry the leaves, grind them into a powder, and use this as a soup base or to make a tea. I prefer to quickly blanch nettles to disarm the stingers, then either use them right away or freeze them for later use. Blanched nettles can be frozen and stored for up to a year.

To blanch your nettles, bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil, then add the nettles and push them under the water to fully submerge them. Boil the nettles for two to three minutes, then strain and rinse them in cold water, to stop the cooking. Before freezing or cooking with your nettles, eliminate as much water as possible from the cooked greens. Grab a handful and give it a hard squeeze. You'll be surprised by the rich, blue-green color of the liquid you're removing.

Stinging nettles reduce greatly when cooked, much the same way spinach does. In fact, you can use cooked nettles in just about any way you'd use cooked spinach: quiches, frittattas, pasta, gnocchi, or gnudi. You can also make a savory, emerald green nettle soup or a sweet/tart nettle cordial.

It's possible to eat raw nettles, but not without processing them first. Please don't just pick a leaf off a nettle and pop it into your mouth. While some experienced foragers claim to be able to do this, it requires careful handling, and I don't think it's worth the possible pain. To disarm the stingers of raw nettles, run them through a juicer to get a brilliantly colored and highly nutritious green juice, or use a food processor or blender to purée the nettles and use them to make pesto or to stuff pasta. 

Nettles are considered to be a superfood by many nutritionists. They're rich in vitamins A and C, as well as iron, potassium, calcium, and manganese. But come on, you know I don't care about that. I love nettles because they taste so darn good.