Laura Dean Bennett
I’ve always thought of stinging nettles (Urtica dioica) more akin to poison ivy than a healthful fresh, green food source.
I’d heard tales of people eating them, making tea out of them and even using the fibrous stems for fabric and rope.
Heck, I even attended the Nettle Festival at High Rocks one spring and bravely sampled some nettle tea.
But me, going out in the woods and harvesting nettles on my own?
And actually cooking with them?
I never thought it could come to that.
Well, I was finally persuaded to really do some homework about nettles.
I found out that there’s a lot more to love about this seemingly quarrelsome plant, than there is to fear from it.
Nettles are perennial plants whose many uses and healthful properties are nothing short of astounding.
They can be easily recognized, with their opposite, heart shaped leaves which have noticeable saw-toothed edges.
But this ornery plant is highly nutritious and grows like a literal weed almost everywhere in the world.
And it is one of nature’s most perfect packages of nutrition for humans to consume.
But they do sting.
Their leaves have tiny hairs covered with an irritating acid which produces a stinging, itchy rash when touched.
Though it is painful, the sting usually doesn’t last more than a half hour or so.
And as long as it is not rubbed into the eye, the acid is virtually harmless and usually washes off easily in cold water.
Nettles have long been used as a nourishing food and potent medicine for people around the world, and here in Appalachia, too.
Anglo-Saxon herbalists of the 10th century used it to counteract poisons and to disinfect dog bites.
The seeds and flowers were taken, mixed in wine, as medicine for a fever.
Nettle leaves were even used to wrap a paralyzed limb to increase blood circulation because the stinging hairs of the plant are known to raise a welt when applied to the skin.
For many centuries, in cultures around the world, nettles have been used to treat kidney disease and to stop diarrhea and internal bleeding.
It was known as good for cleansing the blood and curing anemia and scurvy.
Nettles are an excellent source of iron, calcium, vitamin C, vitamin A, magnesium and potassium.
They are also a great source of protein.
Nettle tea has been used to treat asthma, wheezing, and shortness of breath.
The tea is also a diuretic and has been used to cure cystitis and high blood pressure.
Recent studies have shown that nettles are an effective antihistamine when taken for seasonal allergies and that they are also anti-inflammatory for arthritis.
A decoction made from their dried roots is used as an external wash for healing old wounds, curing itching conditions and to disinfect gangrene.
The decoction was also popular during the Middle Ages as a scalp conditioner for stimulating hair growth.
Stinging nettles stems have some of the strongest natural plant fibers found in any plant in the world.
From ancient times, people have used them in the weaving of cloth and the making of rope.
And nettle leaf tea is a classic spring tonic from Asia through Europe and Britain to the Americas.
For those who are experts in using them, young nettle leaves are safe to use in salads, but the older leaves tame down quite nicely when they are dried or cooked- they completely lose their stinging properties, making them safe to eat.
As for the actual gathering of the scary little things, many “old people” will tell you how to carefully and quickly grasp nettle leaves and cut them from their stems with a knife or scissors.
But, to be on the safe side, I’d recommend using gardening gloves.
When you find your nettle patch, cut only the brightest, youngest, green leaves. For those who forget their gloves or don’t use gloves which are thick enough, you’re liable to suffer a painful lesson.
But you won’t necessarily need to go home to wash.
You may find that mud will lessen the stinging, or you could try crushing a leaf of jewelweed or dock and rubbing it on the sting. Back home, if you have washed and are still uncomfortable, try meat tenderizer, baking soda and water, apple cider vinegar or toothpaste as anti-sting treatments.
When you’re ready to tackle your nettles in the kitchen, use kitchen gloves or tongs when handling the little devils.
Rinse them in cold water to rinse away any dirt and give them a close look for bugs before processing.
Unless you are familiar with nettles and how to use the youngest leaves raw, do not put raw nettles into a salad.
Freshly harvested nettle will store in a bag in the vegetable drawer of your refrigerator, unwashed, for at least two-to-three days.
To dry your nettles for tea, put them in an open paper bag or a cardboard box near a fireplace or heat vent. Don’t reach in and stir them up – they can still sting you while they’re moist.
Once they’re dry, they are much safer to handle since they lose the ability to sting.
But their hairs can still be irritating to the skin or give you a sliver of toxin if you’re not careful – so use tongs.
They are ready to store in a glass jar when the stems are brittle enough to snap.
Make sure not to dry them to the point where they lose their green color, or turn brown or black.
You can also hang them to dry or use a dehydrator. Some people use fresh nettles for steeping for tea, but some say the flavor is better after drying.
If the taste is a bit bitter to you, try adding a little sugar or other sweetener.
Sweetened with honey and lemon, dried nettle leaves make, what many people say, is a flavorful tea.
This time of year, nettle tea would serve as a really nutritious spring tonic.
If you enjoy other wild greens, you’ll probably take to the earthy, hay-like taste of nettles.
If you are using a recipe that calls for fresh nettles, remove all the stalks and chop up the leaves.
If you have a food processor, it will make short work of the job.
Remember to keep your gloves on or use tongs until the little devils are cooked or completely dried.
You can steam, sauté or boil them, but be sure they are cooked thoroughly.
Enjoy them as you would any dish of greens or add them to a soup or a quiche.
Spinach sometimes being hard to come by around these parts, and not inexpensive, it’s good to know that nettles can be substituted for spinach in any recipe calling for cooked spinach.
Add dried nettles to wintertime teas to increase circulation and to warm the body.
There is an old English saying:
“Eat Nettle Soup three times in May, and for a year keep the Rheumatics away.”
According to the old folklore, three bowls of nettle soup eaten in May would prevent the aches and pains of rheumatism for the remainder of the year. Irish monks were great believers in the healthful properties of nettles. The monks left records as far back as the sixth century, indicating that they ate a lot of nettles as part of their regular diet and drank nettle tea as a pain reliever for sore muscles and aching joints.
Do you suppose that nettles were easy to come by and the poor monks might have been starving and that’s why they ate so much of them?
Whatever the reason, they found that the nettles helped ease the stiffness of knees bent in prayer year-in and year-out on the hard, cold stone floors of the monasteries.
And the monks also endured a lot of back breaking labor in their gardens and fields.
Did they discover that eating nettles soothed a backache from hours of wielding a hoe or a rake?
Or did they come to Erin’s shore with the knowledge already?
However it happened, over the centuries, many Irish recipes began to feature nettles prominently.
Here’s an old recipe said to have been passed down by the monks in Ireland.
Irish Monk’s Nettle Soup
2 1/2 cups nettles
1/4 cup butter
1/3 cup fine oatmeal
3 3/4 cups stock
1 1/4 cups milk
1. Melt the butter in a large saucepan
2. Add the oatmeal and cook until the mixture is golden brown.
3. Remove the pan from the heat and add the stock.
4. Bring to a boil and add the milk.
5. Bring back to a boil and add the chopped nettles.
6. Cook for a few minutes and taste for seasoning.
Add salt and pepper if desired.
Serves 6 to 8
For Italian cuisine aficionados, here’s a recipe for you.
Stinging Nettle Pesto
5-6 packed cups raw stinging nettle (you can choose to wash or not)
3/4 cup parmesan – grated (the food processor will take care of it, too, if you wish to throw in a chunk instead)
2-3 Tbsp. lemon juice
1/2 cup toasted pine nuts (or nut of choice)
2 garlic cloves (more if you love garlic
Extra Virgin Olive oil to preferred consistency (approx. 1/4 to 1/2 cup)
Finely chop the first 5 ingredients. Slowly add olive oil until it reaches your desired consistency. Serve with crackers, chopped vegetables or on pasta.
The pesto will turn dark on top as the plant material is exposed to air (like a cut apple turning brown), but this doesn’t impact the flavor.
But to minimize this, you can add a thin layer of olive oil on top if your pesto is in the serving dish, or, after the fact, you may increase the amount of lemon juice in your recipe (keep tasting to make sure it’s not too much) and stir it so the dark part mixes in, and serve promptly.
Refrigerate any un-used portion. It’s best to consume the nettle pesto the day you make it. The flavor tends to become too powerful if it sits overnight.
To change the flavor, you can substitute basil for a portion of the nettles.
Stinging Nettle Tea
Here’s an old time recipe for nettle tea.
Steep two teaspoons of fresh or three teaspoons of dried nettle leaves in a cup of boiled water for about 10 minutes.
The dose is 1/4 cup of tea, four times a day, not to be taken with meals.
To change up the flavor a bit, you may add a slice of ginger root, a few mint leaves or a couple of dried licorice roots when brewing.
And it may be sweetened with sugar or honey.