Often thought of as weeds, the stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) is actually the plant of a thousand uses—nutritious food, medicine, tea herb, cheese-flavoring agent, beer, herbal fiber for weaving, fertilizer, dyestuff, ladybug attractant, important food source for butterfly larvae—and more. See the benefits of nettles plus how to make nettle tea and soup.
One of the first wild plants to thrive early in the year is the nettle. You’ll know if you accidentally run into a wild patch of stinging nettles (which I found in my raspberry patch). When you brush against them with bare skin, the delicate, needle-like hairs that cover their stems and leaves break off and inject you with irritating chemicals that feel like a host of wasp stings. But if you do suffer such an encounter, count your lucky stars. Guard the spot carefully.
Photo credit: Stinging nettle in raspbery patch by Margaret Bolyes
Young nettles rank among the yummiest, most nutritious of green vegetables. And don’t worry! Even the lightest cooking eliminates the stinging hair during the process.
A rich source of calcium, iron, magnesium, and other minerals and of high levels of vitamins C and A, they also contain more protein than other green vegetables (dried leaves are 25 percent protein!). What’s more, many of these nutrients act as antioxidants inside your body, defending your cells against damage from free radicals. This is linked to aging, cancer and other harmful diseases.
Natural Remedies with Nettles
- Stinging nettle tea has been help for those who have allergies. See natural remedies for allergies.
- Dried nettle leaves and roots make both delicious tea and a nourishing hair rinse. See old-fashioned hair treatments.
- An infusion of stinging nettles is also known to help treat sunburns.
- Gardeners have long used fermentations of nettle leaves to fertilize and protect crops. See how to make your own organic garden fertlizer.
- Dairy farmers use nettles as a flavoring ingredient (or wrapper) for gourmet cheeses.
- Some hearty souls enjoy tipping a pint of nettle beer, perhaps with a savory dish of nettle pasta.
- Another innovation you may find soon at your local trendy clothing boutique: clothing made from nettle fibers.
Pick the young leaves or whole shoots from February to June. Avoid older plants; they’ll have a tough taste.
To harvest stinging nettles without getting stung, wear. rubber or leather gardening gloves and long sleeves. You can not touch any part of the nettle as the mild sting lasts for hours.
For the best eating, pick the top three sets of leaves while the plants are just a few inches tall. Use a scissors or garden clippers to cut the top bracts of leaves, leaving the rest of the plant to regenerate and benefit wildlife. Set a pot or bag alongside the plant and clip directly into the container.
Rinse the plants well in a colander, remove any debris, and wear kitchen gloves if you plan to chop them.
Photo: Stinging Nettle Pesto recipe. Credit: Nikolay Donetsk/Getty Images
Nettles have a mineral taste like a strong spinach. You can enjoy them as a side dish with a bit of butter melted on top; turn them into delicious pesto; or add them to soups, stews, and quiches. You can freeze or dry them in the same way that you would spinach or parsley. Again, nettle need to be lightly cooked to remove the string.
For tea, add one cup of nettle leaves and two cups of water to a pot. Heat to near boil and simmer for a couple minutes. Then strain and drink! Add sugar if desired.
Cut off the tough stalks of your nettle leaves. Massage in olive oil until the leaves become soft.
Put in a pot with a glove of one diced potato and one clove of garlic and cover in stock. Simmer for 20 minutes.
Now thin the liquid to the soup consistency you prefer with more stock or milk. It should be a beautiful velvet green color.
Be Nice to Nettles Week
At one time, there was even a Be Nice to Nettles Week coordinated by a group in the UK, but you don’t need an official event to recognize this multipurpose superplant.
If you have a bit of moist, rich soil lying fallow and find a patch of nettles going to seed, perhaps you’d like to create your own backyard nettle patch.