The growing season has begun, and with it, the foraging season. While many have a laser-like focus on morels, others recognize this as the time when many useful and tasty greens will appear. This includes one plant which is easily overlooked, if not considered a downright nuisance: the stinging nettles.
Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica) is native to a large portion of North America. Famous for its tiny, irritant-imparting hairs, it is familiar (and memorable) to kids, gardeners, anglers, and other outdoor venturers.
U. dioica does well in many environments. It can produce thousands of seeds per stalk, but also forms colonies via spreading rhizomes. It thrives in disturbed and/or moist soils, like stream and river banks, ditches, lakeshores, and construction zones. In good conditions specimens can easily grow to over 6 feet. They are easy to spot throughout the season with their heavily textured, emerald leaves.
Nettles for Health
Nutritional content is probably the main selling point when it comes to foraging for nettles. They are known for being rich in many things, including protein, calcium, Vitamin A, iron, and more. So rich, in fact, that the term “superfood” is often used.
Nettles also have a reputation for providing medicinal benefits. As with chaga and other mushrooms, this “knowledge of the ancients” is recognized as dating back thousands of years. And it’s not only the province of herbalists currently orbiting on the edges of cyberspace (You know, the ones who haven’t washed their hair in 18 years and make tea out of absolutely everything). A quick internet search reveals that even the likes of The Lancet and WebMD allude to unquantified, yet real healing properties of nettles— including pain relief.
Sometimes when I’m out foraging and a lower back ache is on the horizon, rubbing a leaf or two all over that region seems to take care of it. It burns like heck, but it works. And maybe that’s the placebo effect, but one thing is for sure: foraging-induced back aches not treated in that manner will persist 100% of the time.
What to Look For
Nettles emerge and develop quickly compared to many other plants. I prefer to harvest nettles fairly early in the spring, while the leaves are smaller and decidedly more tender. Unfortunately, all parts of the plant seem to be more prickly than later in the season. On the other hand, waiting too long—especially after the plant blooms—will allow the leaves to become tougher and take on a bitter flavor.
Some people avoid trying nettles because they do not want to endure the stinging and itching associated with nettle leaves. I have found that rubber or light leather gloves will eliminate the threat altogether.
If intended for cooking, the stems will need to be removed. Once the leaves are cooked, stems will otherwise persist as lumpy or even woody additions. Removing them can be done at home, but I prefer to leave the stems on the plant. The trick is to pinch near the base of the leaf, then twist and pull in order to tear it free from the stem. It isn’t hard, and a person need not lose much of the leaf in the process.
To reap the benefits of nettles, many users will make tea. This can be done from fresh or dried leaves. It’s kind of a classic, but I have yet to try it.
I do, however, like to make nettle risotto at least once every season. It’s a guaranteed hit at my house. I use Hank Shaw’s recipe from his book, Hunt, Gather, Cook. That recipe, along with many others for nettles and wild greens, can be found on Hank’s website.
This year, I feel it’s time to try a nettle soup for the first time. The patch out by the back fence is big enough now to give up a few handfuls of leaves. And the rain seems to have finally quit after four or five days, so I think I’m out of excuses.
If you’re interested in learning about more foraged foods, please visit the What to Forage page.