Often thought of as just a weed, the stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) is a wild plant that has hundreds of uses from culinary to medicinal. Discover the many ways that you can benefit from nettles in the kitchen and in the garden.
One of the first wild plants to thrive early in the year is the nettle. They’re pretty easy to find and, believe me, you will 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 raspberry patch by Margaret Boyles
Nutritious Nettles Are Edible!
Nettles are an edible treat! Young, tender 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.
Nettles have a mineral taste like a strong spinach—and are full of iron. In fact, you can slightly steam young, tender nettles leaves like you would 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.
- While wearing your gloves, cut off the tough stalks of your nettle leaves and wash the leaves. You’ll need 2 cups of leaves for this recipe (or cut it in half). Massage in olive oil until the leaves become soft.
- In a pot, heat up a tablespoon of olive oil and a chopped onion and 3 chopped cloves of garlic and cook until translucent.
- Now add 2 cups of diced potato (about 2 potatoes). Add 2 tsp stock/bouillon and 2 cups of water.
- Cover the pan with a lid, and let it simmer for 10 minutes or when potato is soft.
- Add nettle leaves. Cook for one minute or when leaves are wilted.
- Add a tablespoon of lemon juice. Then blend the soup until smooth. Season to taste.
Photo: Stinging Nettle Pesto recipe. Credit: Nikolay Donetsk/Getty Images
Nettles in the Garden
- Nettles is not only healthy for us humans, but also a great source of nutrients for our crops! Gardeners have long used fermentations of nettle leaves to fertilize and protect crops. As nettles are high in nitrogen, they’re a great fertilizer for leafy veggies like kale, spinach, and chard.
How to make nettle organic liquid plant food:
Just stuff nettle leaves in a bucket or container. Some folks like to have a lid. Weigh the leaves down with bricks or stones. Fill with water. Leave to steep for a month. Mix 1 part tea to 10 parts water and water your plants. Now you have growth-boosting goodness! Learn more about making your own organic garden fertilizer
- Nettles can also be used for beneficial insects as it attracts both ladybugs and aphids (ladybug food). Nettles are beloved by caterpillars of butterfly species. Use nettles to lure away aphids from nearby crops!
- Finally, prune nettles and lay around larger plants as a valuable mulch.
- Or, add to compost to speed up decomposition process. Mix with dry ingredients such as dry leaves, cardboard. (Do not include roots or seed heads.)
Healing Power of Nettles
- Stinging nettle tea has bee known to help those with allergies, asthma, or sore muscles. Just steep a few leaves in boiling water and you have a cup of nettle tea! See natural remedies for allergies.
- Dried nettle leaves and roots make a nourishing hair rinse. See old-fashioned hair treatments.
- An infusion of stinging nettles is also known to help treat sunburns.
Pick the young leaves or whole shoots from February to June. Avoid older plants; they’ll have a tough taste.
And bring your gloves! 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.
Watch our video to see how to use nettles in the garden as well as make nettle soup and nettle tea.