In Praise of Stinging Nettles

Until last year, my relationship with Urtica dioica, commonly known as stinging nettle, was less than positive. I got to know stinging nettle as a summer camper, learning to avoid its long stalk and heart-shaped leaves after some unpleasant encounters. However, my true antagonism toward the plant blossomed when I became a camp counselor. It was not just me dealing with my own pain, but handling lessons and activities gone awry when a camper (or two, or three) decided to walk into a nettle patch.

Later, a coworker told me and the rest of the staff that the plant was actually highly nutritious, and we taught campers the party trick of folding it up, rubbing off the spikes, and eating it without hurting oneself. But overall, the plant was an annoyance, ruining “Counselor Hunt” and other games that required running through the woods, and I wished it out of camp.

I have been converted since then. A trip to the naturopath last spring to figure out how to survive working at camp again with my terrible allergies sent me running to buy nettle pills. But since nettles abound here on the Key Peninsula, I have begun to collect and cook them myself, with an incredible reduction in allergy symptoms.

Stinging nettles are high in vitamins A, C, D and K, and in iron, calcium and protein. In fact, stinging nettles contain four times more vitamin C than oranges by weight, and a serving of only 100 grams contains 48 percent of your daily calcium needs. Nettles have been used in traditional medicine throughout the world for many years, and our ancestors were wise: double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trials have found that nettles help with allergies, diabetes, prostate gland enlargement and more.

The best time to collect nettles is while the plants are still young, which is usually late March or early April. This is perfect for allergy sufferers like me because this is when our woes begin. Young plants are the best for harvesting because their stinging hairs, known as trichomes, have not developed yet. These trichomes, found on the leaves and stems of nettles, are like tiny hypodermic needles. Brushing up against the plant causes the tip to break off, piercing the skin and injecting the biochemicals such as histamine and serotonin that cause the itchy pain.

Different cultures around the world have different plant remedies for the sting of nettles. Most people here in the Pacific Northwest have heard that rubbing the spores of the underside of sword fern fronds helps the pain. I’m not sure how much it helps or why, but I find that the placebo effect is good enough for most campers. Antihistamine creams can also help with the pain.

Ready to harvest? Make sure that you wear gloves. If you use scissors to clip the tops off the plants evenly, you can stimulate growth and maintain your own nettle garden in your yard. Nettles can even be transplanted. My brother dug some up and planted them at our house in Seattle. New growth at the top of the plants can be eaten fresh throughout the summer, while the lower, pokier leaves are better for drying or cooking. They taste fresh and leafy, like spinach with a hint of cucumber. My favorite recipes so far have been soups and tea, but I am excited to get more creative.

You can also collect nettles now and freeze them for use throughout the year, since it is best not to eat the mature plants after they have flowered in late spring. Just plunge the nettles in boiling water for two to four minutes, stems and all, to rid them of their pesky needles. Then rinse them in cold water, drain as much of the water as possible, and chop the nettles into small pieces as you would chard or kale. Store them in freezer bags or containers and you can easily add them to recipes all year—soups, pesto, pasta sauce, stir fries, omelets—you name it.

Nancyrose Houston is the Outdoor Environmental Education Director at Sound View Camp.

Nature Overlooked