Stinging Nettle – Urtica dioica
Some plants have adapted to bare mechanisms of protection that humans often find very memorable. Think poison ivy, a blackberry cane, or the notorious rose—all of these plants have superficial similarities. They all let you know of their presence with a scratch, a poke, an itch or couple blood drawing nicks. It’s hardly fun or enjoyable for most, and often incites grumbling and cursing. Nettles are in some ways similar to these other plants. They’re known for their sting. Stinging nettles, when approached in just the right way, leave a nice burning, tingling sensation on the skin. It’s hardly a tear from a blackberry thorn or a full blown poison ivy rash, but it signals something to the passerby that is worth remembering. And I think for good reason. Let us learn why.
Stinging nettle is a great beginners wild food because they are very common, easy to identify, and have a flavor and myriad of uses both delicious and familiar to the green-loving eater.
Stinging nettle is an herbaceous perennial plant of the Urticaceae family. The most commonly distributed species is Urtica dioica, but many subspecies of this exist across N. America and the world. Stinging nettle is often found in definite clumps, and sometimes large stands, each plant connected via its extensive underground mat of rhizomes and stolons. The plants grow 3 to 6 foot stems which are slightly square, hollow, and have deep grooves running vertically along them. The cambian layer of the stem is comprised of many long fibers, of which the notorious nettle fiber is extracted, and from which it inherits its common name nettle—the strong fibers being used to make nets and ropes. The stem, leaves and petioles are covered with the tiny, notorious barbs or hairs that deliver its ubiquitous sting.
It has 2 to 5 inch long leaves that grow in opposite pairs along the stem and are generally of a dark green color. The lanceolate leaves have toothed margins (thin, long teeth), and have a crinkly texture appearance due to the visibly indented leaf veins. The leaves and petioles range in sized depending on their age and location on the plant—young leaves are short with short petioles (and often a more ovate shape and fatter toothed margins) while older leaves tend to have longer petioles and longer, more lanceolate leave, with finer toothed margins.
The flowers form in inconspicuous clusters at the nodes in mid-summer, giving the plant an almost feathery appearance along the stem. They are small, green and grow 2 to 3 inches in small clumps from the leaf axils. The very tiny seeds ripen almost invisibly in late summer and early autumn in the safety of a dusty fruit.
Stinging nettle is a plant that wears many ecological hats, so to speak. Any organic or biodynamic gardener or farmers knows their importance in those systems. This is because it is a fairly potent dynamic accumulator. It’s vast root mass brings up potassium and calcium and it’s leaves contain high levels of nitrogen. The tiny stinging hairs are made of a soluble silica, a key component that promotes soil health. It has also been shown and used in studies to phytoextract and phytoremediate heavy metals such as arsenic. It has also been shown in one study to be an intermediate feeding site for beneficial predators of aphids.
Nettles generally grow on roadsides, in old field mosaics, meadows, and woodlots. They don’t mind shade, and are found in large clumps near trees and mostly in soil of higher organic matter content and moisture. It is sometimes found in areas that receive large amounts of nitrates or deposits of nitrogen (pastures and so forth). Their mat of rhizomes cover soil and their yearly layering of leaf and stem rot produce a rich crumbly humus between plantings. I’ve also found many a nettle patch growing happily with many other species, the most common combination being stinging nettle and cleavers (Galium aparine). I generally associate the presence of nettles with a past land use and disturbance pattern that was low in compaction or leaching of nutrients—a relatively health soil foodweb and plant diversity. It will gladly and quickly inhabit open soils, especially those in hedgerows, clearings and forest edges.
Nettles are an extremely nutrient dense food, especially for a green. The leaves are very high in vitamins A, C and K. It is also reputed for its generous supply of iron and calcium and a significant supply of protein (which some people say gives the smell of cooked nettles a fish-esque smell). The dark green leaves also contain high levels of magnesium and chlorophyll. It also contains
Ask any herbalist what their “top ten” tonic herbs are and nettle is most likely to be mentioned. This is simply because it is a very fortifying herb with a large spectrum of uses and qualities, making it a perfect herb to consume regularly in medium to large dosages. It is especially effective in working with the liver, kidneys, arthritic conditions, allergies, and the nervous and muscular systems. The rhizomes, as I learned through Daniel Vitalis, are potent medicine for men in particular, having many androgenic compounds that aide in prostate and overall male health. The sting is also used therapeutically, and although I have yet to try it, it is reputed to aide in the relief of chronic pain, soreness and weakness associated with things like arthritis or back pain.
My favorite preparation for nettle is a tea made from the fresh or dried leaves (cut and dried in early spring) as a strong infusion. The leaves can be tinctured fresh and taken internally or used externally on sore or atrophied muscles and nerves. The seeds can also be tinctured and used similarly, although I have yet to try this. I will also use the tinctured rhizomes from time to time.
In the kitchen, I find nettles really useful in many dishes and preparations. Often, they’re compared to or said to be similar to spinach. I don’t think this is very accurate or helpful. Spinach has very juicy leaves, so much so that they wilt under the lightest heat and shrink almost into pulp when steamed. Nettle leaves are not very juicy. They will steam down into a pulpy texture, but overall I think of their texture as much more coarse and dry than spinach. It’s helpful to keep this in mind, so that you prepare them accordingly and without expectations of spinach. For these reasons, I will generally prepare them with some liquid and always a fat—preferably butter.
In early spring I pick early nettle shoots when they’re only 3 to 12 inches tall. The stems and leaves leaves are tender veryt ender at this stage, and they cook down quickly. I’ll sautee them in butter with a touch of onion or garlic (or garlic mustard sometimes)—a little salt to taste and they’re perfect. I also love to boil-steam them in a broth, chicken especially, and serve it with some grass fed butter and miso. Nettle miso soup! You can also steam them and blend them into a pesto of sorts to serve as a spread, dip or on top of your favorite pasta. They are amazing in omelets, lasagna, casseroles, and make a fine creamy soup. I always mix them with other wild and domestic greens to make rich sauteed and steamed greens, which are practically meals unto themselves.
Nettles are very rich, almost fragrant, and very hearty. A tea made from the leaves at all times during the season is refreshing and nourishing. I’ve heard the tea called broth, as its so much more than just a simple infusion. To make the tea, boil a quart of water. When it reaches rolling boil, drop in a generous handful of fresh nettle leaves, remove it from the heat, and cover it to steep for at least 20 minutes and up to 8 hours (overnight). The longer it sits, the darker and more rich it becomes. Come in on a hot sunny day to a chilled glass of that… The leaves are also used to make beer and last year I mixed nettle with dandelion flower and leaves to make a mead.
That burning, tingling, bumpy annoying sting. That’s one way to think of it. I tend to think of the sting of nettles as a reminder. If we were to use the ancient way of relating to plants and nature, “the doctrine of signatures”, we might observe stinging nettles “sting” as a signature of some of its benefits. As mentioned the sting is therapeutic, much like bee stings and venoms. It opens up blood vessels and allows buildup and stagnation to pass through. That burning sensation is a signal of this action. The sting, I also think, is a mechanism for memorization. If you were to pass by a nettle, not knowing anything about it, and received its sting, you would not forget it. I did this once when I was young, ripping out with two hands a nettle plant. I never forgot. But I am not promoting masochism. What I am conveying is that the sting in the nettle might be a sign that it is a plant that has many virtues worth remembering and those little hypodermic needles along the plant are a way it ensures you won’t, at the very least, forget its presence.
If all that sounds too metaphysical for you—that’s fine. Nettles are still a delicious and nutritious wild food, a nourishing tonic and medicine, and a noteworthy plant worth getting to know—either way, one sting and you probably won’t forget it.