There’s no mistaking the stinging nettle. Sure, its paired, heart-shaped, coarsely-toothed leaves are easy to spot. But it’s the painful burning sensation one gets from even a light brush against a stem or leaf that makes the stinging nettle memorable.
While its edible properties aren’t as well known as its more irritating ones, stinging nettle is still one of our region’s more popular wild edibles. Because modern populations have ancestors native to both North America and Europe, botanists debate how many species or subspecies to split our North American nettles into, and popular sources may list them as Uritica dioica, U. gracilis, or U. lyallii. But outside of the library, the distinctions are only incidental to foragers.
The stinging potency varies from one population to another, but all stinging nettles sting. The “hairs” of the nettle plant are hollow tubes atop a tiny, bladder-like reservoir of histamines, acetylcholine, and formic acid, among other compounds. When you brush against them, these tubes act as little syringes, injecting the chemical mixture into your skin – an adaptation that protects the stinging nettles from predation. And maybe it’s a good thing they are so protected. Nettle greens are mild and hearty, without a trace of bitterness. They are also unusually nutritious and a source of vitamins A, C, and D; calcium, iron, potassium, and other minerals; and protein. Without their sting, nettles would surely be eaten by all kinds of creatures.
Fortunately for the human forager equipped with the tools and skills of cooking, heating the greens quickly denatures the irritating chemicals. Greens can be steamed or boiled. They can be used like spinach but are coarser and stringier, so I prefer to chop them well. Nettles are particularly good in soups. Surplus leaves can be dried (drying also destroys the sting), and the dried leaves can be used to brew tea or thicken stews.
Nettle greens can be gathered from when they first appear in spring. The youngest spring shoots are the most tender, but the top few pairs of leaves from each stem can be gathered until the plants reach maturity in June. After that, the leaves become tough and stringy, but still brew a mild and earthy tea.
Picking nettles can be intimidating at first, and many guides recommend gloves, but experienced foragers often forgo them. The tough skin on the palms and fingertips is not easily stung, and if one is careful to avoid brushing nearby plants with the tender skin on the backs of hands or wrists, nettles can be comfortably harvested with bare hands. I prefer to gather with one bare hand to hold the nettle shoot and one gloved hand to wield a pair of kitchen shears and nudge nearby stems out of the way.
Whatever method you choose, I expect that it won’t take long for you to stop avoiding the nettle patches and start seeking them out.
Recipe: Stinging Nettle and Tortellini Soup
1 pound stinging nettle
6 cups chicken or vegetable broth
1 pound frozen tri-color tortellini
1 can petite diced tomatoes
2 cloves garlic, minced
Bring chicken broth to boil. Lightly steam nettles to remove their sting, then chop into fairly small pieces. Add garlic, nettles, and tomatoes to the broth. Simmer for 5 minutes. Add tortellini and simmer until they float to the surface.
Garnish with Parmesan cheese if desired.