Last Sunday I found myself nettle picking on a farm with two very dear friends of mine, with the intention of making a nourishing nettle tincture. There were plenty of nettle leaves to spare after making the tincture, so I experimented with cooking this powerful herb. The following are a few points I would like to share with you about this common but underrated weed.
Nettles as Medicine
In the old days it was commonly used to whip sore arthritic joints or paralyzed areas to bring blood flow and immune cells to the area. The compound that creates the “stinging” sensation and red, raised, irritated skin is formic acid, and can also found in the venom of ants.
Many of us first become familiar with nettle in our youth, as an annoying plant encountered when exploring fields or the bushes, but nettle is in fact a powerful nutritive tonic when used as medicine.
Urtica dioica, a nutritive tonic, purifier and cleanser, has been used as a remedy for:
Benign Prostatic Hyperplasia
High blood pressure
To promote lactation
Some claim it can even act as a tropho-restorative; that it can bring back function to parts that have become paralyzed, atrophied, or are functionally inactive.
The leaf or the root is used, depending on the complaint, and is commonly taken as a tea or tincture. I suggest consulting with a Naturopathic Doctor or Herbalist to find out if Nettle is an appropriate herb for your condition.
Nettles as Food
Although most people are still very surprised by the idea of eating stinging nettle, it is slowly gaining popularity. I’ve even heard of farms selling organic nettle at side-of-the-road vegetable stands or famers markets. Nettle is actually a savory vegetable that tastes similar to spinach, but better (personal opinion of course) and can be served in a variety of ways; as a steamed green, in soup, or in a salad. “But what about the singing?” you might ask. Well, steaming or letting the vegetable sit overnight removes the formic acid, thus deactivating the nettles ability to sting. It is one of the plants highest in protein, revered for its high iron content, and also contains plenty of vitamins (especially C and K) and minerals.
My friend and I steamed the nettle shoots for about 5 minutes, until the leaves softened - you don’t want to overcook the leaves, as this will cause the nutrients to leach out. The steamed nettles were surprisingly delicious with simply a little salt and pepper added to taste.
Faced with the dilemma of what to do with the remaining bag of nettle tops, I threw them in the food processor to quickly whip up some nettle pesto. This required adding olive oil, garlic, walnuts (use pine nuts if you prefer), nutritional yeast (parmesan cheese if preferred) and salt and pepper to taste. Delicious!
Foraging and Picking Nettles
Nettles are a weed, easily identifiable by its jagged leaves and famous sting. Be sure to do your research or go picking with someone who knows what nettle looks like before heading out. When choosing a location be sure to collect nettle away from any roads or areas of ground contamination. Spring is the time to pick nettles - the older plants tend to be quite bitter. If trimmed regularly, they will regenerate new shoots that can be picked later in the summer or even in the fall.
With scissors or a knife cut off no more than 4-6 inches off the top of the plant. If concerned about skin irritation, gloves, long pants and a long-sleeved shirt are a good idea. However I did handle the plant with my bare hands and had no issues other than minor skin irritation.
When picking nettles, please be mindful and pick only the amount you intend to use.
Europeans have used nettles for thousands of years as medicine and food. It has even been used for dying clothing and its fiber was commonly used for making rope. Nettle is easy to find, nutritious, delicious, and has incredible medicinal value, I suggest you try it sometime.
Arrowsmith, N. (2009). Essential Herbal Wisdom: A Complete Exploration of 50 Remarkable Herbs. Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Publications.
Hoffmann, D. (2003). Medicinal Herbalism: The Science and Practice of Herbal Medicine. Rochester, Vermont: Healing Arts Press.
Wood, M. (2008). The Earthwise Herbal: A Complete Guide to Old World Medicinal Plants. Berkeley, California: North Atlantic Books.