As someone who grew up in the suburbs of Long Island, I consider it a minor miracle that I’m even writing a post on how to find, harvest and cook nettles.
Because if there’s one thing Long Islanders don’t do, it is eat the weeds in our backyards. Pummel ’em into submission with weed whackers and pesticides? Well of course.
But eat them?
But ever since I moved to western Massachusetts I’ve learned that so many so-called “weeds” are not only edible but full of health benefits too.
And that certainly includes stinging nettles, one of the more easy-to-find and nutrient-rich wild edibles.
I recruited my friend, Hannah Jacobson-Hardy, to help me with this post. Hannah is a community herbalist and wellness coach of Sweet Birch Herbals here in western MA.
She brought me and a few of her herbalist-in-training friends to a huge patch of stinging nettles next to an organic farm field in Hadley, MA.
The patch stretched along the field for probably a quarter-mile. There were also dandelions, cleavers, yellow dock, burdock and many other wild edibles. But the nettles were by far the most predominant.
Stinging nettles (Urtica dioica) grow all over North America and many other parts of the world. They appear in early spring and grow along side roads, trails, streams, rivers, lakes and the edges of fields. They are pretty simple to identify by sight and super easy to identify by touch…because they will sting you.
Obviously, we want to learn to identify them by sight first.
The leaves of stinging nettles are heart-shaped and serrated, like so…
The leaves grow in pairs on the stem, with each leaf directly opposite from the other one. The pair below the top pair grow in the opposite direction and the leaves get larger the further down the stem you go towards the ground, like so…
They can grow about five to seven feet high but the best time to harvest them is in early spring when the plant is around one to three feet high and the leaves are at their most tender, like so…
According to Hannah, if you harvest the leaves after the plant has flowered in the late spring and early summer, they produce calcium carbonate crystals, which can irritate they kidneys.
As the name implies, stinging nettles do sting! They have tiny little hairs all up and down the leaves and stems, like so…
When you brush up against them, the tiny little hairs can prick your skin and release chemicals that cause a stinging sensation. But not to worry, all you need is a pair of thick or padded gloves to avoid getting stung. Some people are brave enough to harvest them without gloves as you can pinch then in a specific direction where the hairs won’t prick you. However, you still may get stung by neighboring leaves and stems.
Just wear gloves!
Also, long sleeves. Also, pants (because picking nettles in your underwear could get you in trouble). Seriously though, I wore a pair of shorts like a naive suburbanite from Long Island and got stung a few times on my legs. But it wasn’t too bad. Unless you really grab the plant (or fall into a patch), a gentle brush against the hairs will be more irritating than painful.
To harvest, pinch (or cut with scissors or knife) the stem at the top of the plant where the leaves are the most tender, about two to three sets of leaves down the stem, like so…
Finally, pick only as much as you’ll use.
Nettles are rich in minerals as well as vitamin C and vitamin A and they’ve been used by traditional cultures all over the world for thousands of years to treat a wide variety of health issues.
According to Hannah…
There are many ways to cook nettles. But you must really COOK nettles to neutralize their sting. Never eat them raw (unless you live in England and enjoy inflicting pain on yourself).
Nettles will keep in the refrigerator for five to seven days though it’s best to use them sooner than later. Rinse them before using and be sure to use tongs or gloves as their stingers won’t be deactivated until heat is applied.
Here are two of the most common ways to prepare and cook nettles:
1.Use in a soup
Wherever you might use spinach or other greens, you can use nettles as a replacement. I’ve just made a super simple nettles soup which will be the follow-up to this post. I will include a link with a recipe very soon. In the meantime, there are countless nettle soup recipes online.
Update: The follow-up post is ready! Here’s how to make stinging nettles soup.
2. Use in a tea
Perhaps not technically “cooking” making a tea is nonetheless a great way to get the benefits from nettles, especially if you make an overnight infusion. You could certainly make a quick 10-minute infusion but according to Hannah, an overnight infusion provides more nourishing benefits as more nutrients will leach out over time.
Here’s Hannah’s simple method:
Nourishing Nettles Tea
2 cups fresh nettles tea
1 quart boiling water
1. Place the nettles in a quart-sized mason jar or other heat-bearing vessel (pan, teapot). To prevent the glass jar from breaking, place a metal spoon in the jar while pouring the boiling water. The metal spoon disperses the heat, quite a neat trick! Cover the herbs with the boiling water and let steep overnight, or about 8 hours.
2. Strain through a sieve. Keep about 1-2 days in fridge. Drink up to 3 cups per day.
You could also make this tea with 2 tablespoons of dried nettles too. You could certainly dry the leaves or your local health food store may carry dried nettles.
There are many other ways to use cook nettles and recipes abound online including using nettles in pesto, stir fries and pasta.
Nettles can also be made into tinctures, capsules and tablets to treat many of the health issues listed above. This is where working with a trained herbalist and/or health practitioner is important!
If you’re in western MA, Hannah offers herbal consultations, custom-made formulas and teas, workshops, and a wide variety of products for sale, including Full Moon Ghee at the Tuesday Market in Northampton.
You can learn more about Hannah at www.sweetbirchherbals.com.
Hannah would also like to credit her teachers for much of the information in this post, Chris Marano of Clearpath Herbals and Jade Alicandro-Mace of Milk & Honey Herbs.
Learning how to find, identify and cook nettles is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to foraging for wild edibles. But unlike nettles, many are not quite as easy to identify. Some even have poisonous relatives!
So it’s good to learn from someone with experience initially, like Hannah.
Wild edible walks are a great way to learn from experienced guides and they’re very popular this time of year. Just google “wild edible walk” along with your town or county and you’ll probably find a few.
Once you gain some experience, you want to have some handy resources as well.
Here’s a few recommended guides to help you out:
The Forager’s Harvest by Samuel Thayer.
Backyard Foraging by Ellen Zachos (highly recommended if you’re new to foraging).
Have you ever harvested stinging nettles? If there’s anything you’d like to add to this post, feel free to comment below!
Craig Fear is the creator of Fearless Eating and the author of three books, The 30-Day Heartburn Solution, Fearless Broths and Soups and The Thai Soup Secret. After years helping clients with digestive issues, Craig decided to pursue writing full-time. He intends to write many more books on broths and soups from around the world! Click here to learn more about Craig.