Harvesting stinging nettles? Why would you want to do that? They’re stingy and itchy and just plain irritating to your legs and hands. In the spring, these tiny upstarts pop up in the open spaces beside ditches, and they’re regarded by many as an obnoxious, somewhat dangerous weed.
However, these hardy little plants are also very good for you. In spite of their unsavory reputation, stinging nettles (Urtica dioica) are a savory food. They’re nutritious and delicious, and they’re free.
Why Eat Stinging Nettles?
There are some foods that make me shake my head – why would anyone have ever thought to eat that? The nettle was among them. However, nettles are full of iron, silicon, potassium, and vitamins A and C. They are the perfect tonic to a fall and winter spent eating canned foods or storage foods. If you like to do some spring cleaning, they are the ideal cleanse for your body.
Nettles are a little bit challenging to harvest, but they’re so tasty and nutritious that they’re worthwhile. First, you’ll need to find them. Some of you may laugh because you have nettles aplenty, but others like me may not see them often. I live in a place where ditches along bright roadsides are scarce. Nettles love damp, neglected areas, so if you live in a rural area that has plenty of rain, you’ve likely got nettles. If you live in an urban area, look along the sides of parks or vacant lots. Just be conscious of what’s in the air and in the soil around your nettles. If the park receives heavy doses of pesticides or the nettles are growing in an old gas station or parking lot, they may contain toxic chemicals. When you’re wildcrafting, it’s always important to consider where your food is growing and whether it is legal to harvest plants in that area.
When to Harvest Nettles
Nettles are best harvested for food in early spring, shortly after the shoots have emerged from the earth. They are also excellent fiber plants and can make a sturdy rope as they get taller over the course of the summer. However, for eating, earlier is better. If you find a patch, visit it when the leaves start coming out on the trees. You may want to visit it more than once in the first year to get a sense of how quickly the plants grow.
To harvest nettles, get some garden gloves! The nettles will cause a tingly rash if you just stick your hands into the plants. Use scissors to harvest the top of the plant, leaving part of it at the bottom to grow again. Place the nettles into a bag that’s easy to close – you want to contain your nettles until you get them home, steamed, and sting-free.
Nettles have a unique taste that I can only describe as earthy and green. I love the taste, but others aren’t so keen. Before you harvest, try out some nettle tea to see if you like the flavor.
To eat your nettles, steam or dry them to take away the sting. First, I wash them, soaking them to remove any little critters. Do this with gloves on, as the nettles will still sting. Next, I place them on a drying rack or steamer. When they come out, they will be safe to handle without gloves.
I use some of my nettles in a spring soup. I puree steamed nettles, cooked garlic and onion together and freeze some for future soups. I add some to a milk and potato puree, add salt, and taste test until it is delicious. My daughter’s a pretty typical kid and is not into weird vegetables, but she loves this soup.
I like to dry nettles as well. When they are dry, they are nearly half protein, and they are also rich in iron. This makes them great for a tea for women, who are often deficient in iron.
Want to learn more about edible wild foods? We recommend this low cost ebook: Free Food from Foraging.
Like other wild plants, nettles can be food and habitat for wild animals and for other humans. They are also tough, sturdy plants that bounce back easily. However, always keep in mind that unlike harvesting plants from your own garden, if you are harvesting in a public place other people and animals may rely on that nettle patch as well.
Have you eaten nettles? What do you make from these delicious spring leaves?