Nettles! Urtica dioica for the Latin lovers. 

Welcome Spring! Welcome readers! Welcome to the wonderful world of Nettles! It’s been a looooonnnnngggg cold winter and now is the time to shake off the winter doldrums and go get yourself some of the MOST NUTRITIOUS plant on the landscape, in its prime. Yes, that very same plant you avoided all your life, the one with the stingers!  Ask any herbalist and this lovely specimen will hold steady in their top ten useful herbs. Ask any forager of wild edibles what is the most nutritious and easiest to find….you guessed it! Nettles. Nettles provide us with food, fiber and medicine. In this article we will focus primarily on the food aspect, but as you know, when you’re eating food, you can’t separate out the medicine.  

Now that I have you attention (and I didn’t need to sting you like our friend Urtica dioica), I’ll give you some nutritional “facts”.  50 grams or 2 cups of fresh nettles will provide you with: 169 mg Vitamin C, 18 mg Iron, 305 mg Calcium (compared to 350 mg for Kale), 100 mg Phosphorous, 128 mg Magnesium, 707 mg Postassium and trace amounts of Vitamins A, E, B1, 2, 3, & 6, Zinc, Copper, Manganese, Sodium and Selenium. On average in the spring fresh Nettles contains 28% protein. 

Where to find it? Nettles doesn’t mind damp feet, loves edges, but you can also find it in direct sun. I’ve found it behind barns, along side compost piles, all along the edges of fields tucked up along the tree line. Here’s what they look like right now. They are dark green with perhaps a tinge of purple and only about 2-4 inches high. Look for 4-6 foot stalks left over from last year’s plants as a flag of where to come look on the ground.

nettle-patch_450How to harvest? The stingers, if treated with disrespect, will sting you. What does disrespect feel like to a nettles plant? I’m not sure I know all the ways to disrespect nettles, but the simplest is to grab or brush the plant backwards…..down the stalk or down the back side of the leaves where the stingers are. I always harvest nettles barehanded.  I slow down and pay the proper respect this life-preserving plant deserves. I find if I move slowly, grasp lightly and don’t go against the grain, I leave with minimal stings. The stinging itself is used for arthritis. Call me an herbalist, but I like the zingy feel of nettle stings throughout the rest of the day after a harvest.

* A special note here. Do not be alarmed if after your nettle harvest has been in your car, or in your home, it smells a little like cat pee. This is completely normal. I attribute it to all the nutrients in the plant but I have not confirmed this.

When to harvest? The month of May is the best time for harvest. I harvest the top 2 sets of leaves off a plant and then let it recover and grow before I harvest from it again perhaps one more time that season. We can’t just keep taking from the same plant all spring or the plant will not have a chance to recover. Take a little bit from each plant. Once the nettles flowers, you no longer harvest the leaves. Crafty foragers and herbalists can get another harvest in the fall by cutting the plants all the way back in late August so they put forth new growth.

Ethical Harvesting: Give thanks, ask permission and take no more than 25% from a patch in the “wild”. 10% if the place looks like it’s frequently harvested. If you’re taking the tops as described, you can harvest a bit more.  

How to eat? Any way you would use cooked spinach, you can use nettles for eating. All the little stingers that didn’t get you during harvest will get your mouth and throat if you eat them raw. Cooking the stingers will deactivate the protein in the stinger. Nettles have a distinct flavor, so if this is your first go round with them, perhaps mix them in with other favorite steaming greens until you get used to the flavor. Some of my favorite recipes are: sautéing nettles in my breakfast burrito, nettle lasagna, nettle soup and finally, nettle, ramp, fiddlehead and morel quiche.

                                  Breakfast Burrito:

                    2 shiitake mushrooms chopped1 egg

      ½ cup chopped nettles1-2 Tablespoons Feta cheese

                   1 cup chopped kale Tortilla of choice

Heat up cast iron pan. Add mushrooms then greens and 1 tablespoon of water and cover.

Steam until bright green (about 1-2 minutes). Scramble in egg. When egg almost cooked add feta,

mix together and shut off pan. Heat up tortilla and add scramble. 

Good luck finding your own nettle patch or better yet, plant one! This way you can just walk outside every May morning and harvest a few tops for your breakfast burrito.

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I'm a researcher, educator, guest lecturer, and co-founder of Heartstone Center for Earth Essentials in Van Etten, NY.