Foraging for Stinging Nettles
Updated: Dec 20, 2022
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!
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 meadows in the mountains, 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, and send me the coordinates! 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 also 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 number of stingers that find you, but you will still likely feel a few. I have become used to the stings and generally don't mind them.
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 different 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, for instance.
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 honestly 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 would recommend the same if you have trouble finding nettles, or can't get enough of them like me.
Nettles are easy to start from seed or cuttings and even easier to take care of! 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 with them. 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 and protein and several other vitamins and minerals in various amounts. 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 a patch of your own, and spread the nettle love!
Nettles and over 100 other species of edible plants and mushrooms can be found on my Foraging Calendar! If you'd like to check it out, you can find more info on my Patreon Page. Your support helps me create more articles just like this one! Thank you!