We’ve been enjoying nettle season for a while already here, but those of you in cooler climates may still be waiting for the weather to warm up enough for the nettles to sprout. Whether you’re at the end or the beginning of nettle season, going nettle hunting is fun. Just make sure you remember to bring your gloves!
Nettles are a wild food that is nutritious, abundant and free. Nettle is especially high in iron and vitamin C. It’s also a diuretic and it helps reduce the symptoms of different types of allergies and skin conditions such as eczema and hives. It’s one of the first greens available in spring, with a welcome fresh, green taste. They’re great for pregnant and nursing mothers. And where nettle grows there is usually lots of it. The soft tops grow again when they have been pinched off, which means you may harvest nettle tops from the same patch for several weeks.
How to Gather Nettles
Nettles are best in early spring, when the leaves are soft and tender. Once the plant has long, stringy, seed-like blossoms the leaves are tougher and less nutritious. So while it’s possible to harvest nettle later in the spring, it’s best to catch them when they’re young. Wearing your gardening gloves or rubber dishwashing gloves, pinch off the top 4-6 leaves of the plant. When you get home you may dry your nettle tops, either on racks to air dry or on a baking sheet in an oven on the lowest setting. Nettles also make great soup, pesto, lasagna or anything else that calls for greens like spinach. I’ve also heard of people freezing nettle, but I’ve never tried it. I do keep my dried nettle in the freezer though, to prevent any mold.
But how do you eat a plant that stings?
If you’ve ever brushed up against nettle, you’ll know that it packs a powerful sting. Tiny hairs on the undersides of the leaves and on the stem will sting bare skin, leaving painful bumps and blisters. Fortunately, these hairs are deactivated when the plant is dried or cooked, so once they are prepared they’re safe to eat. Nettle stings are also a failsafe way to identify the plant. If you find a lookalike plant but it doesn’t sting, it’s not nettle! We like to make nettle and peppermint tea, mixed up with honey. Yum!
As with all foraged wild foods, always make sure you’re gathering nettles from a clean spot. Avoid nettles growing alongside busy roads or where they may have been sprayed with herbicide. And if you do get a sting, rubbing a dock or plantain leaf on the spot will help ease the painful prickling feeling. Happy nettle gathering!