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Spring has been a long time coming but it is finally here. The snow on the ground has melted, the trees are budding and there’s a freshness in the air. It will soon be time to gather stinging nettles (Urtica dioca), one of my favorite wild spring edibles. I love this wild edible plant not only for its delicious and nutritive properties but also for its many health benefits. I thought it would be fun to share how to find, identify, and prepare this wonderfully delicious and medicinal herb.
I find that foraging for wild foods and medicinal herbs is a nice way to get outside and connect with nature and can also be a great way to help you connect with your food in a more meaningful way.
A couple of years ago, I learned about the many health benefits of stinging nettles. These plants have been used in folk medicine for centuries and are now used as nutritional supplements. I now look forward to foraging these every Spring. First, let’s talk about where and how to find them.
When and Where to Find
Stinging nettle is found throughout most of the world. As an herb, it prefers moist environments, but it isn’t too picky about soil quality or exposure to sunlight. You can find it in fields, along streams and rivers, and in many gardens and backyards.
Stinging nettles typically grow in large patches and grow best during cool weather, so they’re usually one of the first plants to sprout in early spring.
In North America, these herbs grow from California to Alaska and across most of Canada, excluding the arid Southwest states. It’s also found throughout Europe and Asia.
Stinging nettle can be weedy or invasive in some regions of the United States, but it is not considered an invasive species on a global scale. The best news is that, unlike some other wild plants, there is no risk of overharvesting. That means you can forage these wild abandon without hurting anything (except for maybe yourself if you don’t wear gloves)!
Stinging nettles are an herbaceous perennial that looks similar to mint, with toothed margins and pointy tips joining square stems in pairs. The whole plant is covered in little stinging hairs and no noticeable scent, unlike the mint. The tiny hairs that cover the stems and leaves contain chemicals that cause stinging sensations upon contact with bare skin.
The stalks are usually unbranched and can grow up to 6 feet tall. However, in the best harvesting stage, they are much shorter.
The nettle’s flowers are small, grey-green, and not particularly attractive, but when you notice them, it’s a sign that the season for harvesting them is nearly over, however you can still use the leaves on growing tips.
Harvesting stinging nettles can teach us to mindfully focus on our actions, especially when the consequence of not doing so can end up with you getting a nasty stinging rash. So, don’t forget to put on leather or other impenetrable gloves as well as long sleeves and long pants for extra protection against the stings.
Nettle tops are best enjoyed in early spring, but if the nettles are repeatedly cut back, they will regrow and send up fresh shoots, extending the harvesting season through summer and even into autumn.
To harvest, pick the top 6 inches of the plant wearing gloves, or use a pair of scissors to cut and lift them into a bag or basket.
Nettles are a great way to improve mineral intake for people with busy lifestyles. Recent studies show that mineral content in foods has decreased dramatically over the past few decades, so people eating a healthy diet could still be deficient in nutrients. Nettles are high in vitamins D, A, and C and also have extremely high mineral content, such as iron, calcium, phosphorus, and magnesium, making them a natural superfood.
Here are 5 health benefits of stinging nettle:
1: Allergies: Nettles are a traditional remedy for allergies. Nettles contain natural anti-histamines that help reduce inflammation and prevent histamine release in the body. This makes them a great tool for treating hayfever and seasonal allergies.
2: Urinary Tract Infections: Nettles have been used historically to treat urinary tract infections. It’s thought that this is because the plant has astringent properties which can help heal the lining of the bladder.
3: Arthritis: Nettle tea is a traditional remedy for arthritis pain. The anti-inflammatory effects can help with swelling and pain associated with arthritis but be sure to consult your doctor before taking this or any other supplement.
4. Immune Booster: Nettles are an immunity booster and can help build resistance against infections and the flu. Drink a strong tea of nettle leaf at the onset and during an illness until it is under control.
5. Regulates Blood Sugar: Nettles are highly effective for diabetics, as they decrease blood glucose and increase circulation, which supports the treatment of diabetes. They also dilate blood vessels and promote the elimination of urine, which helps lower blood pressure.
How to Eat
Nettles can be rinsed in clean water to remove dirt and reduce their sting. I pinch the leaves off the stems, but you might prefer to wear gloves. The stems may be tender enough that you can chop them up with the leaves attached.
After they have been washed thoroughly, blanch them by heating up a big pot of salted, boiling water. Then, without touching the nettles, dump them directly from the bag into the pot. Press them with a slotted spoon or tongs to fully submerge them. Let them cook for about 45 seconds to one minute like that. This wilts them and neutralizes the sting.
Next, drain the nettles in a colander and squeeze out all of the excess moisture. At this point, they are ready to handle without risk of being stung. Sautée them with olive oil, garlic, salt, and pepper for a simple side green, or use them in this quiche recipe (substituting the lamb’s quarters for nettles). The leaves can also be brewed into a nutritious tea.
Nettle can also be frozen for later use. Simply, blanch them for 30 seconds in boiling water, then remove them and submerge in a sink full of ice water. Leave for a minute or so before straining and placing in a freezer-safe container or ziplock bag. They will keep for about a year in the freezer.
Interested in other wild edible foods and how to prepare and eat them? Here’s a great article with some ideas for you: Wildcraft a Feast of Invasive Edible Weeds: 25 Recipes or if you’re simply interested in recipes using nettles, check out 10 Easy Nettle Recipes You Don’t Want to Miss.
A Gift from Mother Nature
If you’re a fan of wild edibles, and nutrient-packed spring greens, I highly recommend using stinging nettles in your recipes, like these here: 10 Easy Nettle Recipes You Don’t Want to Miss. It’s a beautiful work of nature that is easy to prepare and delicious. I think we can all agree that nettles are a gift from Mother Nature that can be used to both nourish and heal us.
It’s important to note that stinging nettles, like anything else that’s edible, should be harvested and prepared with care, and 100% positively identified beforehand. By following the steps above, you’re setting yourself up for a safe and tasty harvest.
Disclaimer- I am not a medical professional. All information shared here is for information and entertainment only. Do your own research and consult your health care provider before treating yourself with any product, plant or mixture.
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