Nettles: Friend and Foe
By Dani Lind | Photos By Jim Klousia 0
We’ve all been there—hiking through the woods with shorts on, weeding the garden, landing a canoe on an overgrown shore—one minute you brush against a green leafy plant and the next you’re blinded with prickly, burning pain. At that moment you probably curse the wild stinging nettle as a vexatious weed, but really, nettles are quite an amazing edible and medicinal wild plant. And best of all, as a “weed,” they’re free food!
Since there’s not much I love more than free food, especially tasty and nutritious free food, nettles are well worth a sting or two. They can be used as a leafy green like spinach, and fresh or dried as a tea or seasoning herb. They have hardy, perennial rhizomes that soak up minerals from the soil all winter long and transfer seriously deep nutrition into their emerging green growth in the spring. You can spy their serrated, heart-shaped, purple-tinged green leaves poking through just-thawed bare soil as early as April. Nettles taste best in spring before they flower and go to seed (usually starting in June), but if you harvest a particular patch by always gathering the growing tips, you can delay that process by many weeks.
They will quickly colonize an area, forming a nice patch that you can remember and return to again and again. They’re just out there, everywhere, free for the picking, growing wild throughout the North American, European and Asian temperate climate zones in rural places like river banks, meadows and forest edges, but also in more urban locales like lawns, roadsides and even alleyways where less hardy plants can’t get a foothold.
It sounds scary, but you can eat nettles raw by juicing them, soaking them in cold water, or crumpling the leaves, which crushes their stingers and renders them harmless. Drying them or less than a minute of cooking will also eliminate their stinging powers. I love them cooked, and in spring I like to use them in all sorts of dishes: pasta, eggs, savory tarts, spanakopita, saag paneer, pizza, pesto, or sautéed on their own with a bit of green garlic as a side. They have a mild, earthy, grassy green flavor that’s almost salty-tasting from their rich mineral content. They’re easy to blanch and freeze for use as a green vegetable year-round or to dry for tea.
It may not be fun to get stung by a nettle, but it’s still an interesting process. This stinging phenomenon is a biological deterrent the plant has developed over millennia to discourage browsing animals like humans from eating them. The hollow hairs that cover nettle’s leaves and stems are made of silica, like glass is, that act as tiny hypodermic needles that enter your skin when you touch them, breaking off when you move, and injecting several chemicals that cause pain, burning, and sometimes an angry rash that can last from several minutes to several hours. But the pain can be easily avoided by watching where you walk and wearing gloves when you harvest them.
If you are stung, there’s usually a soothing antidote growing nearby. Jewelweed, plantain, dandelion, and dock can help, as can mud (or supposedly human urine, but I think I’ll stick with jewelweed). Or you can tough it out; it certainly won’t kill you.
For hundreds of years, people have sought out the nettle’s sting on purpose as a folk remedy for arthritis. These people literally flagellate themselves with bunches of nettles on their affected areas, presumably because the same chemicals that cause the painful sting can also reduce the inflammatory pain of arthritis (or at least make them forget their rheumatic aches in a frenzy of blinding pain from the stinging nettle).
Many of our ancestors thought of nettles less as a nuisance weed and more as a versatilely useful plant. In addition to providing food, strong and soft fiber for ropes, nets and cloth, and an easy plant-based dye, ancient peoples looked to nettles as medicine. Most well-known as a springtime tonic and blood cleanser to rebuild health and strength after long, cruel winters, nettles were also considered a cure-all for maladies such as gout, arthritis, urinary tract and kidney problems, high blood pressure, heart issues, poor lactation, menstrual problems, male infertility, anemia, eczema, baldness, the flu, congestion, and allergies.
Many cultures attributed powerful spiritual properties worthy of fairy tales and superstitious rituals to nettles. Ancient Irish folks saw nettles as a shelter for elves and a protector against sorcery, and Saint Patrick blessed them. Nordic lore claims nettles are a plant holy to Thor and thus will protect one from lightning. Many cultures considered stinging nettles a “threshold herb,” a magical bridge between the realms of life and death. Welsh folklore says a nettle leaf under the pillow of a sick person can tell if that person will live or die depending on whether it retains its color overnight. Nettles allegedly helped a famous 12th century Tibetan Buddhist saint achieve enlightenment after he subsisted solely on nettle tea for years while meditating in a cave. Both in ancient China and Northern Europe, nettle fabric was used as sacred burial cloth. On a darker note, in Denmark nettles were said to grow where the blood of innocents was shed, and in Scotland from the bones of dead men.
Today, stinging nettle is still a common natural remedy for hay fever, asthma, osteoarthritis, and certain urinary tract conditions. Modern researchers are also conducting studies of its effectiveness on many of the same conditions it was traditionally used to treat by our ancestors.
Knowing modern medical studies, conclusive proof of anything might be a while in coming, so I’ll stick with my original selling point—they’re free food!
Editor's Note: Always learn about harvesting wild foods from an experienced wildcrafter, or use a guidebook with colored photos and excellent descriptions. If you have or know of a wild patch of nettles, lucky you! Please harvest responsibly. If you do not have access to wild nettles, they are sometimes avaiable at farmers markets in spring.
Enjoy these recipes for nettles!