I’ve been experimenting with stinging nettle since I was a little girl in Germany. At that time, it was used as a test of stamina between my siblings and me, whoever touched the most stinging nettle before crying out won. As the youngest I often cried out first and quickly learned to give stinging nettle a wide berth!
About 8 years ago, I started to look at stinging nettle differently and it soon became one of the first wild edibles I experimented with. A course with Botanist Laura Reeves of Prairie Shore Botanicals and one of my favorite wild edible books – The Boreal Herbal by Beverley Gray had me making tea and soup with this versatile yet prickly plant.
Despite it’s stinging nature, this nutritional powerhouse is well worth donning a pair of gloves and harvesting.
Stinging nettle is rich in Vitamin A, C, D, K, iron, calcium and a protein. If you like spinach and kale for their nutritional prowess, you’ll love stinging nettle!
It’s the perfect plant for anyone just beginning to explore wild edibles. It can be found in every province and state, can be picked for free, is relatively easy to use (just wear gloves!), is mild flavored, is hard to mis-identify and can be used in multiple ways.
Here’s what I’ve learned about finding, harvesting, drying, freezing and using stinging nettle.
Yes, stinging nettles really do sting. It’s a combination of tiny spines and a chemical mixture made up primarily of formic acid that causes the stinging or burning sensation when our skin comes into contact with the leaves or stems. The sensation may last just a few minutes or a couple of hours. If need be, it can be calmed with a paste of baking soda and water.
Wearing long pants, long sleeves, solid shoes and gloves is highly recommended when going on a stinging nettle harvest!
But don’t worry, cooking, drying or even crushing stinging nettle will disable the stinging. As long as you don’t make stinging nettle salad – there are many safe ways to eat and use stinging nettle.
I’ve only ever used the leaves and stems of nettle plants although the roots and seeds can also be used and many people pick them for medicinal uses. In this article, I refer only to the leaves and stems.
Personally, I use stinging nettle now and then for pleasure. I appreciate it’s nutritional properties, but do not use it in prescribed amounts for any specific medicinal purposes. If you’re interested in using stinging nettle or any other plant for medicinal purposes, I strongly encourage you to consult credible, trusted sources before doing so.
With that said, stinging nettle is one of the most well researched wild edibles and has been used for medicinal purposes since ancient Greek times. The University of Maryland Medical Center says “Stinging nettle has been used for hundreds of years to treat painful muscles and joints, eczema, arthritis, gout, and anemia. Today, many people use it to treat urinary problems during the early stages of an enlarged prostate (called benign prostatic hyperplasia or BPH), for urinary tract infections, for hay fever (allergic rhinitis), or in compresses or creams for treating joint pain, sprains and strains, tendonitis, and insect bites.”
Where To Find Stinging Nettle
Stinging nettle can be found across the globe. It loves rich, moist soil high in nitrogen. Farmers know that old manure or compost piles are a favorite hang out for stinging nettles. They prefer sunlight, but will tolerate some shade. You’ll find patches in disturbed soils, along streams or river banks, on old homesteads and along the edge of clearings or forest pathways where the sunlight comes through.
When to Harvest Stinging Nettle
Stinging nettle is a cold season perennial plant, meaning it is early to pop up in the spring. It grows rapidly and will reach it’s typical 3-5 foot height quite quickly. The optimum time to pick stinging nettle is just before blossoms develop in spring and early summer. Once nettle has gone to seed, the leaves will become a little bitter and develop gritty particles that may irritate the urinary tract of some people.
How to Harvest Stinging Nettle
Armed with a basket or paper bag, scissors, gloves, long pants, long sleeves and closed-toe shoes, you’re ready to head into the nettle patch.
Cut about 2 -3 inches above ground level just above where there are leaves branching off.
By cutting just above that spot, like most garden herbs, you actually encourage new growth. In the photo below, you can see the two leaf sets on either side of the cut, both of these will grow into new shoots. By mid summer, you should be able to harvest these again.
Store your cuttings in a paper bag or basket. Plastic bags don’t breath as well and may cause condensation which will cause mold to grow if you don’t empty the bag right away.
How to Use Stinging Nettle
Cooking, drying and crushing stinging nettle will disarm the stinging. If you have a recipe that accomplishes one of those things, you can use stinging nettle in just about anything. Here are two recipes that are an excellent place to start cooking with stinging nettle:
Also consider using stinging nettle in any cooked recipe that calls for spinach or kale. It goes particularly well with eggs and nutmeg.
You can also make tea with stinging nettle. When I had a couple of friends over for the first nettle harvest of the season, we brewed up some nettle tea with fresh leaves and stems (a handful of leaves and stems steeped with boiling water for 3 -5 minutes). We all agreed that it was too potent to drink on its own and enjoyed it much more after we added some dried Hyssop to the brew.
My favorite way to make nettle tea is to dry it and blend it with other ingredients. I find dried nettle tea has a much more subtle flavor. I like how it rounds out the flavor of other ingredients and adds all the other benefits of stinging nettle.
How to Dry Stinging Nettle
Start the drying process by washing your stinging nettle. Actually, whether or not you wash your nettle before you dry it is up to you. I decide based on where I’ve picked it from, the condition of the leaves, the number of insects I see, how dirty or sandy it is and so on – it is rare that I don’t wash it.
To wash it, put on a pair of gloves to dip and swish the nettles in a bowl of cold water, repeat in a fresh bowl of water, then drain. Water droplets can cause dark spots on drying herbs, so it’s always a good idea to remove surface moisture by laying it on a clean towel. You can even dab the leaves dry with another towel if you’re in a hurry.
Now you’re ready to dry your stinging nettle in the dehydrator or by air drying.
In a dehydrator…
- Spread stems and leaves on the drying trays of a dehydrator. Set the temperature at its lowest setting (95°F or 35°C) and dry for 12 to 18 hours.
- The stems will take longer to dry than the leaves, so always test them instead of the leaves to determine if the drying is done.
- If you want, you can also separate the leaves and the stems and dry them separately.
To hang dry…
- Gather 5-6 stems and tie together with kitchen string. To allow for good air circulation, do not tie too many stems together.
- Label your bundles and hang in a clean, dry and dark place – or on your dining room light fixture!
The length of time it takes to dry your stinging nettle depends on the size of your bundles, the humidity level and maturity of the nettles. It could take as little as one week or as long as three weeks. Just be sure that the stems are completely dry before you take them down.
To store your dried stinging nettle, keep the leaves and stems in big pieces to retain as much flavor and essential oils as possible. Store in paper bags or glass jars (avoid plastic bags as they may lead to condensation).
I used dried stinging nettle in various tea blends.
How to Freeze Stinging Nettle
Start the freezing process by washing your stinging nettle as indicated above.
For best results, blanch the stinging nettles. Just like any vegetable, the enzymes that age vegetables will remain active in the freezer without blanching. Your veggies and your stinging nettle will have better flavor if blanched.
To blanch stinging nettles, simply add the nettles to boiling water and boil or steam for 2 minutes. Remove from the boiling water and immediately soak in ice water for 2 minutes. You can use the blanching water for cooking pasta or soup.
Squeeze and drain as much water as possible from the nettles.
Chop and fill freezer bags or containers in 1/2 cup or 1 cup portion size for easy use.
Add frozen chopped nettles to soup, casseroles, pasta dishes, stir fries, stews, egg dishes, dips, spaghetti sauce, gnocchi, etc.
I’m excited about this year’s stinging nettle harvest and plan to expand my list of nettle recipes. Do you think you’ll try stinging nettles this year? Do you have a favorite recipe?
Interested in learning more? Get Getty for a wild edible hike, kitchen workshop or group presentation. Getty Stewart is a freelance Professional Home Economist, author of Manitoba’s best-selling Prairie Fruit Cookbook, Founder of Fruit Share, mom and avid veggie gardener. She loves growing, preparing and preserving food and has been doing so forever.