Fields, Forests & Wetlands Foods of Eastern North America
A Complete Wild Food Guide
Beautiful picture showing top of Stinging Nettle perfect for picking. This is clearly from a healthy mature plant. Compare to the new plant in the flower pot in the pictures below. (By: Ben Grader)
Urban, Rural or Both: Both
Top leaves picked from the Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica) early in the season are my absolute favourite cooked green. I have never tasted a cooked green - either wild or domestic - that I like better. From my experience, the taste varies with location and time of year. It seems the dryer the spot they are growing in and/or the later in the season, the poorer the taste. The tastiest seem to grow in damp, rich soils by river banks as soon as you can get them. The best I ever had were growing in a rich, sandy soil by a river that flooded each spring. The area was nothing but Stinging Nettles in a patch about 15 X 30 meters (50 by 100 feet). I would gather a plastic grocery bag stuffed full, and by the time I was done, I was covered in stings - but I didn't care, as I was on my way home to a plateful of steamed Stinging Nettles.
The leaves must be cooked to destroy the stingers, but after that it is up to you. A quick dunk in boiling water, or a quick steam will do. They can be used in soups, baked dishes, anything. The way I like them best is quickly dunked and removed from boiling water and served with olive oil, lemon juice and a pinch of salt. Sometimes if they are a particularly good batch, a quick dunk in boiling water and eaten straight up right away - literally - dunk, lift, shake, eat. Don't burn you mouth.
How to pick them: One way is to use gloves and a bag. Only pick the top two or three inches from the new top growth in spring. They just snap off. If you see the tiny flowers forming, you are too late for this year. May/June is usually about the only time they are worth eating. Even the new growth later in June just does not taste right, and can be stringy.
There is another aspect to gathering them that may seem odd to someone unfamiliar with harvesting Stinging Nettle. Normally we think of greens from younger plants as tastier and more tender than ones from older plants. Stinging Nettles are not like that. First year plants (see the picture in the flower pot below with the Pink Impatiens in with it) are not good tasting at all - regardless of when harvested in the season. What you want are greens picked early in the season from mature rootstock. I find the older the plant the better. The picture at the very top of this page under the heading is from a mature plant early in the season. This is what you want. They are not always this purplish or fuzzy in the new growth, but that does not seem to matter much, though if anything the darker ones do taste a little better, but there are other aspects more important. Compare the first year one below to the mature one above, and it is hard to believe they are from the same species of plant, but you can see how easy it is to tell the difference. I knew of a clump that I harvested from for 10 years or more that got better year after year. Sadly, it was washed away one spring in a flood. I went back and the land where it used to be was washed away. I was honestly saddened. That was around the year 2000, and I still think about that plant and wished I had transplanted to my garden. It had the dark purplish new growth like the picture above.
There is a bare handed technique for picking them. The stingers face slightly upwards, so move upwards with your thumb and forefinger as you are about to grab the stem. If you do it right, you will bend off the stinging hairs as you are grabbing without getting stung - in theory. I always get dozens of stings when gathering them, but it doesn't bother me at all any more. I just go wading through them and grab the tops - but I certainly don't suggest that to others.
Stinging Nettles are full of nutrients. I wish I could remember where I read this, but one writer said that if they did not sting they would have gone extinct long ago, as they are so good tasting, and so rich in nutrients, that animals would have grazed them to oblivion.
I remember the first time I discovered Stinging Nettles. I had just met my future partner Pamela in the mid 80's, and we were biking along a path by the Thames river in North London, Ontario. We were looking at the plants, and she asked me what that plant was. I said I didn't know, got off the bike and bent down to smell it to see if it was a type of mint, as it had a square stem like mint family plants do. I stuck my nose right onto the stingers of the stem, and was shocked by the sudden pain that felt like ten bee stings on the end of my nose. I would have never guessed at that moment it would become one of my favorite foods. I get a laugh when I think about that now, as I pretended the pain was no big deal while my eyes were watering.
By the way, I use them to alleviate rheumatism in my knee. Eating them helps, due to the anti-inflammatory effect. Also, just grab a stalk of stinging nettle with gloved hands and whack the nettle stem on the sore joint a few times. For the first few hours, you feel like 20 bees have stung you, but after that it really does work. Native Americans used nettle for this. I wouldn't do this if you are allergic to bee stings, as some of the chemicals are the same in bee stingers and Nettle stingers. Some people do use bees to sting themselves to help in the same way.
Growing this plant in your home garden:
For more detailed growing instructions, go to my Wild Foods Home Garden website Stinging Nettle page.
- Plant Size: 1 to over 2 meters (3 to 7 feet)
- Duration: Perennial (above ground part of plant dies back each winter to sprout again in spring from same root)
- Leaf Shape: Ovate coming to pointed tip, often but not always heart-shaped at base.
- Leaf Phyllotaxis (Leaf Arrangement) on branch: Decussate (Alternating Opposites. That is, they come in Opposite pairs that Alternate on the stem - if looking at the plant from above, you will have one pair at three and nine o'clock, then the next pair at twelve and six o'clock.)
- Leaf Size: 3-15 cm (1 to 6 inches) long
- Leaf Margin: Serrated (Sawtooth)
- Flowers: Very small green flowers on long (5-7.5 cm or 2 to 3 inches) thin clusters that come from the stalk of the plant where the leaf stems come out.
- Fruit: Very tiny reddish tan to black seeds
- Stem: Green, 4 sided, covered with small hollow hairs that are actually little hypodermic needles that inject the stinger chemicals - how amazing is that?
- Habitat: It likes rich, moist soil in full sun or partial shade. Often near rivers and creeks. Very often found where there was farming but now abandoned. I seem to find the healthiest ones in rich soil by rivers and creeks where it floods occasionally in the spring for short periods, and stays damp the rest of the season. Can be found as a clump here and there, or filling large areas. I find they often sprout from bags of purchased potting soil.
- Recipe search on the web here (Google search) and here (Bing search).
- Pictures on the web here (Google images) and here (Bing images).
- USDA distribution map and plant profile here.
- The Biota of North America Program (BONAP) distribution map here. BONAP map color key here.
Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica) illustration. (By: Prof. Dr. Otto Wilhelm Thomé Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz 1885, Gera, Germany)
Young Stinging Nettle growing in with pink Impatiens in flower.
Close up of Stinging Nettle stem with stinging hairs visible. Impatiens flowers behind. I find it common for Stinging Nettles to come up in bagged potting soil – this is the case here. First year ones like this are not as good as the tops from mature rootstock.
The stingers that defend the plant. These are basically biological hypodermic needles. (By: Randy A. Nonenmacher CC BY-SA 3.0)
Stinging Nettle in seed in my garden. This picture was taken in late summer. Far too late for gathering leaves for food, but if you find some like this make note of the location, as there will be lots for picking next spring. If you want to grow some, these seed heads will provide hundreds of seeds.
A beautiful crop of Stinging Nettles, but far too late to harvest. Once you see those long flower clusters at the top, it is way, way past picking time. (By: kallerna GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2)
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