For many people, stinging nettles (Urtica dioica and the closely related Urtica urens) conjure up images of nasty burning sensations caused by brushing against the nearly invisible spines on the leaves of an otherwise lovely green plant. Nettles grow wild in damp, shady woods, and can reach several feet high.
Nettles’ sting comes from sharp silicate-bearing, hair-like structures on the leaves that actually shoot irritating substances into your skin like a hypodermic needle. Unlike plants which cause reactions for only some people, nettle stings affect virtually everyone who touches them.
So why not just avoid nettles altogether? When picked fresh before they start blooming, nettle leaves are a healthy spring tonic and a nutritional powerhouse. They are rich in vitamins A and C, iron, potassium, manganese and calcium. They also have a high protein content, making them a great ingredient for vegetarians and vegans. And they’re not as difficult to work with as you might imagine. Heat breaks down the chemical that causes the stinging sensation on skin, so cooked nettles are perfectly safe and delicious to eat.
Nettles have many traditional medicinal uses, some of which have been supported by modern research. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, “[s]tinging nettle has been used for hundreds of years to treat painful muscles and joints, eczema, arthritis, gout, and anemia. Today, many people use it to treat urinary problems during the early stages of an enlarged prostate (called benign prostatic hyperplasia or BPH), for urinary tract infections, for hay fever (allergic rhinitis), or in compresses or creams for treating joint pain, sprains and strains, tendonitis, and insect bites.” Pregnant women, people on blood thinners, and people with diabetes should avoid eating nettles. Consult with your doctor if you are taking other medications.
Nettles grow abundantly in our area, so take gloves, clippers, and a couple of big bags and enjoy a leisurely walk in the woods to collect them. (Wash the gloves before you handle them after you’re done.) You’ll want to clip the top six to eight inches of leaves and stem early in the spring before they begin to form flowers. If you’re not into foraging, a few vendors at the Bellingham Farmers Market have been carrying bundles of fresh nettles, too.
In the kitchen, you can wear rubber gloves, or I just put my hands in plastic bags when working with nettles raw. Tongs can also be helpful. The sting is an uncomfortable burning sensation and takes a few hours to go away, so you’ll definitely want to take care. Suggested remedies to lessen the sting, should you get one, are aloe vera gel, baking soda mixed in water to make a paste, vinegar, hydrogen peroxide, mud, or fern juice (though I don’t know what kind of fern). I don’t make this stuff up. If any tiny stingers are left in your skin, you can use adhesive tape to pull them off. I’ve never personally tried any of these methods, though I occasionally get stings. To me, they are annoying, but not that miserable, really, so I just wait for them to go away.
So now you’ve got the nettles, and you know how to handle them comfortably. How do you cook them? Learn more here.
Some nettles recipes:
Also, this article contains information about nettles and allergy symptom relief.