The Complete Stinging Nettle

The wild potherb stinging nettle is so tasty and so nutritious that it's had to arm itself in order to survive!

| March/April 1983

  • stinging nettle
    The leaves of stinging nettle have fine hairs that irritate the skin for an hour or so. Aside from that, the plant is edible and has many potential uses.
    Photo by Lester V. Bergman

  • stinging nettle

My first impression of the stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) was, I admit, not altogether positive. It happened when Michele and I were walking through the coastal British Columbia woods one spring, and upon brushing my way through a thicket I felt an unfamiliar itching, burning sensation on both hands. In the course of getting out of that patch of greenery, I was able to determine which particular group of plants was responsible for my discomfort. And when we arrived back at our home (by which time the stinging sensation was long gone), we dug out our trusty reference books and soon, in a wild foods field guide, identified my prickery assailant as a nettle.

I was surprised to learn that the herb is edible — and further, that the leaves are credited with being rich in iron, calcium, protein, vitamins A and C, chlorophyll, and mineral salts. However, despite the fact that the leafy plant sounded like some sort of super-food, my memory of those tiny, stinging hairs was still vivid enough to make me skeptical about eating the herb.

Michele didn't share my reservations, though (after all, she hadn't been stung!), and some nights later I found an unfamiliar cooked green on my dinner plate. The leaves were a rich, dark emerald color. Upon taking a somewhat hesitant taste, I found them to be succulent, with a spinach like flavor. I was surprised to note (since I had my suspicions) that there was no "sting" to the cooked leaves at all. "Nettles?" I asked. "Yep!" she answered.

We went on to forage the potherb often that spring, always being sure to wear long-sleeved shirts, long pants, and gloves. And over the course of that and a number of the nettle seasons that followed, we've learned a good bit about how to find and use the stinging beauties. We'd like to share what we've discovered, and perhaps introduce other folks to one of the most versatile wild foods anywhere.

An Urtica Safari

The stinging nettle is only one among the edible members of the Urticaceae family. Its relatives including the wood nettle (Laportea canadensis) and the slender nettle (Urtica gracilis)— resemble it in both appearance and usefulness. It favors light, reasonably rich soils on waste ground and along roadsides, and grows from Canada south to Illinois and Virginia. (The wood nettle which frequents forests and stream banks has a much wider range, covering eastern North America from upper Canada south to Florida. Still other species can be found on the western half of the continent.) The simplest way to identify the stinging nettle is to touch the foliage. The resulting sting, if you have indeed discovered a patch of nettles, is mildly irritating but short-lived (and nature provides an antidote in the form of the juice from a crushed stem of jewelweed genus Impatiens — which, conveniently, often grows in the same habitat as do nettles).

This potherb, like most wild greens, is at its best in the spring. It will often toughen and/or become bitter after its flower clusters appear. As the plants mature, you'll find that the pale green top leaves will have better flavor and texture than will the large, dark foliage lower on the stalk. Furthermore, many nettle patches will put out new tender shoots in the late fall, often maintaining them until well after the first frost.

3/17/2007 12:38:28 PM

aloe is good for calming down stinging nettle on children. I'm a kid and thats what i use.

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