Nettles, Perfect for Spring Foraging


Stinging Nettle Shoot
a baby nettle in the spring


Today I heard lots of bird chatter on my run. It must be spring. The mornings are still frosty but warm up quickly into glorious sunny afternoons where you linger in the light of what seems like a fresh new sun holding onto the day.  

New growth is starting to peek out of the wet ground.  Fiddlehead ferns, nettles, and dandelions, are all young, tender, and bright green. Each one tasty and nutritious.  



Nettles. Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioicia) Wood Nettle (Laportea candensis) & Slender Nettle (Urtica gracilis) all produce tender edible green leaves. Used throughout history for food and medicinal purposes, today they are often considered troublesome weeds and a nuisance.  As the name suggest, Stinging nettle will sting! Use care and handle with gloves until cooked or dried, this will stop the stinging properties. Freeze drying and juicing will not break down the formic acid, histamine, etc… that is in the little stinging hairs.  Nettles grow tall, 2-7 ft with an upright stem, and dark opposing leaves that are rough and have coarse teeth.  By early summer small green flowers begin to appear either from the leaf axils (female) or from the top of the plant (male).  Once they flower, nettles are best used for medicinal purposes or wait till fall to harvest the next batch of new growth for eating. Pick before it is killed by frost.  


Native Americans used nettle for food medicine and textiles, using the fibrous stems to make rope and fishnets. Europeans used the fibers for cloths, cordage, and paper and the greens for food and drink.  It is so abundant in the UK and as the only common stinging plant, stinging nettle has found a place in several figures of speech in the English language. To “nettle” someone is to annoy them. Legend says Roman soldiers used the stinging properties to ‘warm’ their legs on cold nights, and finding them so useful that they carried nettles with them as the Empire moved across northern Europe. The scientific name for the nettle, urtica, comes from the Latin uros, ‘to burn’ or ‘I burn’.  


Nettle Soup


Supposedly originating in the colder climates of northern Europe and Asia wild nettles can now be widely found in disturbed habitats, moist woods, stream banks, shaded trails and roadsides across North America, Europe, and Asia.  They typically appear in the same places year after year, so you can find a replenishing supply of wild greens one you’ve located a nettle patch.   


Nettles have been recorded in culture dating back to the bronze age (in burials), and documented in Roman history for health and food sources. It is somewhat unclear when nettles gained widespread use.  


Nettles are a nutritional powerhouse and have more protein than almost any other vegetable. They have high levels of minerals such as calcium, magnesium, iron, and potassium. Nettles also contain vitamins A, B and C and amino acids.   Historically, nettles are a well loved home remedy, said to help with breathing problems, arthritis, eczema, prostate health and basic first aid.  


Stinging Nettle Stingers
the stinging hairs of a nettle


For food:  

Substitute nettles for spinach. Harvest baby greens for things like soups and creamed nettles. Steam or boil and serve with lemon juice.  

Pull larger leaves in the summer before they flower and dry for things like tea and first-aid uses. The tea from dried nettles is hardly a tea at all, tasting full bodied of a rich plant stock.  

As a home remedy:  

Use as a home remedy for cuts, coughs, and allergies. Use to relieve symptoms of nosebleed or uterine hemorrhage.   

Nettle, dried in capsules, may help hay fever.  

A tincture can be used as an expectorant to aid colds and coughs. Take 1-4ml three times a day.  

A compress of steeped leaves will help blood clot on minor cuts and scrapes.  

Prepare a cup of tea by pouring 2/3 cup of boiling water over 3 – 4 tsp of dried leaves or dried root and steeping for 3 – 5 minutes. Drink 3 – 4 cups per day. You can also make an infusion with fresh nettle leaves. Always drink additional water along with the tea.  

In the nineteenth century nettle tea was used as a restorative tonic and feed to those with a ‘weak constitution.’  

*It should go without saying that you should be able to clearly identify any plant that you choose to harvest and consume.  Consult a doctor for medical treatment*  

plant photo credit: “Wildman” Steve Brill and his book Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and Not So Wild) Places