Nettle: The Stinging Spring Edible


Identifying the leaf

Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) is aptly named. The hairs on the tips of leaves contain a sac of formic acid that penetrate the skin, creating an unpleasant burning sensation that can last up to 12 hours. Now, here’s an interesting fact: Quileute seal hunters used to rub themselves with stinging nettles before going out to sea to help keep them awake throughout the night. Why bother harvesting and eating this risky plant? The health benefits are astounding: protein, iron, potassium, manganese, calcium, vitamin C, and vitamin A. The taste is unparalleled, distinctly green and fiery.

I am fortunate to live in a pocket of the Pacific Northwest where stinging nettles are abundant.  Well, fortunate is relative as my fortune changes when I discover new fields of the species during mid-summer runs.  Stinging nettles grow throughout most of North America in deep, rich soil or near moisture and frequently shady locations from sea level to low mountains.  The plant is easy to identify.  The stem is straight, and the coarsely toothed dark green leaves are simple and opposite, egg to heart-shaped.

Fendler's waterleaf

Sometimes you have to be adventurous and touch the leaves to confirm the identification.  Last year when I revisited my favorite nettle patch, I noticed that the small hairs on the leaves weren’t stinging me.  I was intrigued, thought maybe I had developed immunity, and harvested regardless.  After making a large batch of “nettle” pesto, something seemed off.  The pesto wasn’t fiery as usual, but I felt fine. In re-examining the patch with my guidebook and proceeding to rub the “nettle” on my face because my “fingers had lost the sensation,” I realized my nettle wasn’t nettle. What a stupid mistake this could have been!  Always double check your guidebooks and be certain before you eat anything wild. I was extremely lucky and happened to discover a new treat, Fendler’s waterleaf.

Foraging for Stinging Nettle

Collecting stinging nettle does not have to be a painful procedure. Never touch the nettles with your bare hands; wear gloves, bring scissors and a sack.  Harvesting should happen at the onset of growth, collecting the stems with the top four leaves of the plant intact.  The first shoots are nutritionally dense and have lower levels of toxins. I like to harvest plentifully within the first month of growth, eating as freshly as possible then preserving the rest.

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