Foraging stinging nettles can be a bit intimidating, they sting after all! When harvested with care, stinging nettles are easy to forage and well worth the effort. Learn when and where to find this wild food, how to identify, how to prepare, and how to avoid the sting!
(This post was contributed by Melissa Keyser)
A long time ago, I flipped through a book about ancient medicine. The only thing I remember from my brief reading was how people suffering from arthritis would use stinging nettles to whip their body in the aching areas.
I don’t know about you, but I think I’ll pass at that remedy.
Despite being scarred by that story, and the childhood memory of creek adventures punctuated with, well, quite literally punctures from tiny stinging hairs, I continue to have a love affair with this wild plant. And this past week, I went foraging for the infamous stinging nettles. Not for a crazy ancient remedy, but to eat!
Yes, You Can Eat Stinging Nettles!
Before we get any farther, lest you think I’m trying to encourage a sadistic meal, it’s important to note that the stinging part of the nettles go away when they are dried or exposed to cooking heat.
Why You Should Celebrate Stinging Nettles This Spring
Stinging nettles, also known by the Latin name of Urtica dioica, are a pretty awesome plant and have a variety of uses.
Nettles are good to drink in tea or take a powdered form. The stems contain fibers that can be spun into thread or braided into cordage. They are highly nutritious (in vitamin A, calcium, magnesium and iron) and, the big draw, they are also delicious to eat!
On their own, I think they are a bit “grassy”, but when paired with a fat like butter, cream or cheese, they are delicious. They even make an out of this world nettle cake. All that delicious is the reason I was arming myself with gloves and tramping around the river banks this past week.
When To Find Stinging Nettles
In my area of California, stinging nettles appear when the first rains come. October if we are lucky, but December or January
if we are in a drought year is the new normal. If you’re in an area with cold winters, nettles are a totem of spring! The warmth of the new season wakes up the dormant roots, sending up a flush of new growth.
They will continue to grow throughout the year, and you’ll find them standing tall by autumn, but they are only good to eat when they are fresh and young. Once they start to flower, it’s best to pass them by.
Where To Find Stinging Nettles
Nettles are native to Europe but have now naturalized throughout most of the US. Look for them in wet areas, alongside creeks, edges of damp woods, and areas with rich soil. I collected mine from the bottom of a wash alongside a river. On the property I grew up on, they grew on the banks of a small creek, between the redwoods and big leaf maples.
How To Identify Stinging Nettles
Stinging nettles are in the same botanical family as mint, have similar characteristics, and are easy to identify.
Look for the hairs on the stems and the leaves. They are easy to see. If you cut the main stem, you’ll also see that it’s hollow. Look for their square stems and opposite leaves, with prominent veins and are shaped like an oblong heart, with the edges sharply toothed.
They also have auxiliary buds, or smaller leaves, that come out at the main leaf junctions. This is also where the flowers grow from, which are dangling clusters of tiny blooms, nothing showy.
They can grow very tall, almost 6 feet by maturity. If you see one, there will be more nearby. Nettles are perennial and will come back in the same spot year after year.
But, the easiest way to identify stinging nettles is to touch it. For reals. If you think you have some nettles and you brush against it and can’t feel it, you’ve got the wrong plant. I advise using your arm or the back of your hand, not the palm.
What does the sting feel like?
It’s not the worst thing in the world, but you’ll feel it. It’s more similar to getting bit by a biting insect, like a fire ant, then a poke from a thorn. You’ll feel a sharp burn, sometimes even through your pant leg or sleeve if you brush against it. Don’t forage barefoot or in shorts. The pain lasts quite a long time, inflaming the area, but it’s very acute, focused only on where you were touched. I think bee stings are much worse.
Covering the area with wet mud can help alleviate the pain. Sometimes, nature is so convenient. It’s like she plans it- nettles are usually nearby mud.
How to Harvest Stinging Nettles
Unless you’re crazy, you’ll want to avoid getting stung, so wear gloves. Or, if you have arthritis, I suppose you could go old school and use your hands. Let me know if it helps.
I wear rose gloves, which cover my forearms. Normal leather garden gloves would work great. Likewise, rubber dish gloves or beekeeping gloves. Cotton gloves won’t do shit.
For the tenderest greens, start harvesting right after they sprout. You’ll want only the top 4″-6″ of leaves. Avoid any older or insect-eaten leaves, and use clippers to snip off the tops. Like any wild plant, there is occasionally some bugs. I give the leave a shake before adding to my basket to prevent transporting home a rouge beetle. Occasionally, I’ll see plants infested with aphids, so give a look before cutting and pass those by.
Prepare Stinging Nettles
Once you get your nettles home, you’ll want to remove the leaves from the stems. Use your gloves to do this. You can wash the leaves by putting them in a bowl, cover with water, use kitchen tongs to swish them around, then pull out and let dry on a towel or give them a spin in a salad spinner.
If you won’t be using right away, you can store your stinging nettles the same way you would store spinach or lettuce (I keep greens like that in my salad spinner). After steaming or boiling, you can also freeze them to enjoy later.
This is not a fresh eating green!
Remember, they need to be completely dry or have heat applied to kill the sting! Lay on a cookie sheet or a screen to dry, then use in tea. Steam or sautee, like spinach, and then you can use in a variety of recipes.
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