Foraging for Stinging Nettles

A super-food of the wild edible world, stinging nettles are not only nutritious and common, but delicious! Learn how, when and why to forage for this dynamic plant.

Foraging for Stinging Nettles

I was intimidated by the “stinging” properties of nettles for a long time. I’m not a big fan of touching anything that could possibly hurt my skin, nonetheless the very idea of ingesting a plant of that nature. I mean heck, I walk by a single poison oak leaf and break out in a rash on my face, neck and arms, so I think I have good reason to err on the side of caution.

But once I put some time into doing a little research, I learned that it can be harvested safely and painlessly. YAY! That’s awesome new, because the incredible nutritional and medicinal properties this plant has to offer are quite appealing. It’s no surprise I set out the very next day to forage some!

It’s best to harvest nettles when they are still young before they flower and set seed (they tend to begin flowering around June, depending on your region). Definitely wear gloves while collecting to avoid the stinging hairs as much as possible (though I’ve learned the “stinging” really isn’t all that bad and it only lasts a few hours.)

Why do They Sting?

It’s pretty straightforward: It appears that stinging nettles have developed stinging cells as an adaptation to deter herbivores from eating them. Clever, eh?

The nettles contain long, thin, hollow hairs that cover the majority of the stem and the underside of the leaves. Nettle stings contain acid (formic acid) . They also contain histamine and other chemicals. These “hairs” act like needles when they come into contact with the skin. Chemicals flow through them into the skin, which causes a slight stinging sensation and a rash in those with sensitive skin, like muah.

Best eaten while young and tender, but they can be harvested late into April. Make sure you remember to wear some gloves! 🙂

Where you Can Find Stinging Nettle

Stinging Nettle is extremely common and is found throughout Canada and the US, with the exception of Hawaii. They are very hardy and invasive, and they particularly enjoy wooded areas that receive a lot of rain, and partially shaded trails and riversides. I see them along pretty much every trail here in the Pacific Northwest. With a little practice, you will, too.

stinging nettle

How to Use Stinging Nettle

Stinging Nettles have quickly become one of my favorites, as they taste similar to spinach (quite earthy, which I like), and are a super-food packed full of calcium, vitamins A and C, manganese, iron, and potassium.

  • First, steam or blanch in boiling water first to dispel the stinging properties (Once cooked, the little stingers melt away. So remember, just cook them first. I just blanch them for a minute or two in boiling water). Once you do that, you can eat them like any green!
  • Saute in butter. Simple and mmm.
  • Make Stinging Nettle pesto!
  • Dry the leaves and make tea. (Simply pick a handful of nettle tops wearing gloves. Place the tops in a teapot or french press and pour over  boiling water. Steep for ten minutes, strain and drink.) The tea is a gorgeous green color, and rich in all of those nutrients.
  • Great in soups!
  • Has been used for hundreds of years to treat painful muscles and joints, eczema, arthritis, gout, and anemia. People would make a quick poultice out of the nettles and apply them liberally to the affected area.
  • Fibrous stems of mature plants can be used to make twine, fishing nets, snares and other items. How neat is that?!

Some Stinging Nettle Recipes

Below are some of my favorite recipes that use nettles! They open in a new window and most are written by other foragers/chefs. Check them out!

Share your favorite recipes & uses below in the comments!!

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