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  • Writer's pictureOrion Aon

Foraging for Stinging Nettles

Updated: May 16

If I had to choose my favorite plant, which is almost like picking a favorite child, I would pick stinging nettles! They're delicious, super versatile, loaded with great nutrients, and cool! Stingers on a plant? Come on! With a little precaution during the harvest and prep, these can become your favorite plant, too! Let's dive into foraging for stinging nettles!

Harvested stinging nettle greens on a backpack.
Spring nettle greens!

About Stinging Nettles

It has long been said that stinging nettle was not native to North America and was instead a European species, Urtica dioica, that was brought over with many other species during colonization. There was also a belief that we had a subspecies of the European variety. Nowadays, it's more commonly accepted that we have our very own species native to North America, Urtica gracilis! Gracilis means 'slender' and refers to the narrow leaves these nettles get at maturity.

In Colorado, they aren't nearly as common as they can be in other states. Here, they're mostly limited to the riparian areas, marshy mountain meadows, and occasionally the fertile soils near old homesteads. I always target them in the riparian areas while looking for the other spring bounty these habitats hold asparagus, morels, oysters, you know, the ones! If you find or know of some good nettle patches, cherish them. They can be thick in some areas, but I often find them in smaller patches dispersed throughout a habitat.

The best time to harvest stinging nettles is in the spring, well before they've flowered, or early summer if it's a high-elevation patch. You can also gather them later in the year to dry and use for tea or broth, but early is best! I would suggest using a pair of gardening gloves and some scissors to harvest them. Snip below the top three or so pairs of leaves in between nodes. This will result in a plant that sends up two or more new stalks, like when you harvest herbs. If you're brave or used to the stings, you can harvest them barehanded by pinching and snapping the stem with your thumb and index finger. Here's a video of that process from my Instagram if you want to learn it! You can handle them delicately to reduce the stingers that find you, but you will likely feel a few. I have become used to the stings and generally don't mind them.

Nettles and scissors
Nettles and a perfect tool to harvest them, herb scissors.


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Nettle Stingers

Speaking of the stinging, let's talk about how that works! Nettles have trichomes, tiny needle-like hairs that contain acids and other irritating compounds. When you touch the trichome, it breaks off in your skin and splashes you with those irritants. This causes welting or hives (they get the name Urtica, from urticaria), a stinging sensation, and paresthesia or tingling that can sometimes last for a day. Pretty cool, right?! I should also add that some people use this to treat joint pain and arthritis, and there are nettle festivals where they do all sorts of crazy things with raw nettles!

Fortunately, these stingers can be neutralized in a few ways to make nettles more comfortable to consume. The most common method is heating, be it cooking or dehydration. Any applied heat will neutralize the stingers and make them harmless to handle. You can also 'break' the stingers to neutralize them. That can be done manually with a rolling pin, such as in this Turkish nettle salad from Forager Chef, or mechanically with a food processor.

Handful of stinging nettles
A handful of nettles!

Eating Stinging Nettles

Have I mentioned how great nettles are as an edible plant? They can be used for many applications, from tea, cooked greens, pesto, and even ice cream! The options are endless! Here are a handful of ideas to get you started!

  • Ice cream - It's like green tea ice cream but better! I'll write a full recipe at some point, but it's as simple as infusing fresh or dried nettles into an ice cream base.

  • Steamed - Simple and delicious. My favorite way to eat nettles!

  • Tea - Easy. Use fresh or dried nettles steeped in hot water.

  • Pesto - This method from Graham was my first exposure to raw nettle pesto.

  • Soup - Fresh, green, and beautiful. The perfect springtime meal!

There are so many other great uses for nettles. I don't come close to foraging enough of them to try all the recipes I'd like! That's why I'm planting nettles at my house! I recommend the same if you have trouble finding nettles or can't get enough like me.

A jar of nettle pesto
Raw nettle pesto.

Growing Nettles

Nettles are easy to start from seed or cuttings and even easier to care for! Nettle is a perennial, so you can let them do their thing once established! You may want to plant them in a container and clip the flower heads off to keep them somewhat under control so you don't have nettles all over the place, or maybe you like that idea. I do!

Don't fear stinging nettles, even though you may have had a bad experience. If you're sensitive to the stings, wear gloves until they're neutralized. This plant is loaded with health benefits and should be in your diet! They are reported to have high amounts of calcium, protein, and several other vitamins and minerals. They are comparably more nutritious than spinach or kale. Plus, they're perennial! You can plant a patch and let it come back year after year, always spreading and offering you its healing greens. Forage some, plant your own patch, and spread the nettle love!

Foraging Calendar

To learn more about the best seasons to harvest stinging nettles and many other wild foods, check out my Foraging Calendar & Wild Food Database! You can try the demo version to learn more, and join my Patreon to gain full access to the Foraging Calendar and other exclusive perks! Joining is the best way to support all the work I put into my content and website to help you learn about foraging! Thank you for checking it out!

Screenshot of my Foraging Calendar and Wild Food Database

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