Updated: Dec 23, 2019
I quickly learned to identify stinging nettle leaves from accidentally running into their brittle stinging hairs. That burning pain and accompanying welts are due to nettle’s high concentrations of formic acid , also used as a defense mechanism by fire ants. The sting itself is relatively harmless, but definitely leaves a lasting memory! In fact, urtication (self-flaggelation with nettle stalks) has traditionally been used to address a variety of conditions, from muscle pain to arthritis.
There are many plants who share the common name “nettle” (wood nettle, flame nettle, hedge nettle, bull nettle, etc), but today I want to focus on my friend Urtica diocia. Nettle is a wild plant that grows in many parts of the world. It is rhizomatous perennial plant, covered all over with stinging hairs. It can grow up to 2-4 feet tall. It has opposite leaves that are toothed with a point. It is considered a “weed” and spreads voraciously. The seeds are achenes and are covered by yellowish-greenish coating. Nettle likes to grow in sunny spots where there is moist, rich soil. Non-human animals don’t like to eat raw nettle, so this plant can spread quite prolifically and grow quite tall.
In my herbal practice I use the dried leaf as tea, often blended with other nutrient-dense herbs such as raspberry leaf and oatstraw. The leaf, root, and seed can all be used in tincture, depending on which plant constituents are intended. Much has been written about the various medicinal uses for this plant, for support in conditions such as arthritis, allergies, and eczema, rheumatoid arthritis, and mild hypertension. This blog posting won’t focus much on those conditions specifically, but you can click on the links at the end of this page if you’re curious to learn more.
My favorite way to use nettle leaf is to incorporate it as part of whole-foods nutrition, as it is loaded with vitamins and minerals and tastes similar to spinach. It’s great for everyone, especially to boost vitamins and minerals during critical times like childhood, surgical recovery, and pregnancy or to support vitamin and mineral intake for folks who are immuno-compromised due to conditions like HIV. Nettle leaves are loaded with minerals including magnesium, potassium, and calcium as well as vitamins C, B, and K. Key flavonoids like quercetin seem to play a role in protecting against conditions such as cardiovascular disease and cancer.
Fresh or dried, nettle leaf should always smell a bit like grassy seaweed and be dark green in color. If you live near a nettle patch, it is possible to harvest your own. Be sure to practice ethical wildcrafting practices and avoid collecting plants in heavy polluted or well-traveled areas. If you are harvesting your own, it’s best to do so when the plants are still young in early spring, before the plant flowers. When harvesting, cut the top third below the joint. As the plant matures, strip the leaves because stalk very fibrous and the leaves will be less tasty. Pro tip: wear gloves while harvesting and processing!
Cooked nettles will not sting because the formic acid is neutralized when the cell wall of the plant is broken through cooking, freezing, drying or thoroughly pureeing. To cook the leaves, first remove individual leaves from denser, more fibrous stalks, as these will take longer to soften and thus impact cooking time. I recommend blanching the leaves for 5-7 minutes and then submerging into an ice bath to shock. Cooked nettles can be used in soups and pasta dishes or used in your favorite egg or egg-substitute dish. You can also puree cooked nettles in a food processor and save in ice cube trays for later use.
For the brave, it is possible to eat raw fresh nettles, and my favorite way to do so is in nettle pesto. Nettle pesto is a delicious dip for raw veggies or crackers and can also be frozen and used later in pasta or rice dishes. Here is a simple recipe for nettle pesto. Feel free to get creative with more culinary additions (pine nuts, roasted red pepper, cheese, thyme, etc) if desired.
1/3 cup sunflower seeds
2 packed cups fresh nettle leaves
2-3 cloves garlic
salt and freshly ground pepper
Begin by toasting the sunflower seeds in a skillet over medium heat for 4-5 minutes or until golden brown and aromatic. To a food processor or high-power blender, add nettle leaves, a pinch or two of salt and pepper, and ¼ cup olive oil. Slowly add seeds once they are cool. Blend the entire mixture until. Blend until smooth, adding more olive oil to get desired consistency. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Enjoy!
Stinging Nettle by Penn State/Hershey Medical Center
Herbs for Spring Allergies by Michael Tierra
12 Nettle Recipes to Add to Your Cookbook by Jackie Johnson