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Foraging for Stinging Nettles

A plant which doesn't really need much in the way of an introduction, and that has throughout history long been considered an essential and beneficial plant, but foraging and eating these prickly plants might not be your first thought when it comes to wild food.

Stinging Nettles, or Urtica dioica, are a plant which we have all fallen victim to at some point in our lives, and for many they will be a familiar sight in our gardens, woodlands and green spaces. Its stinging needles, cause an itchy, sometimes painful, irritation with even the gentlest touch, catching us as we brush past them on the path. This seemingly hostile plant is understandably not most people's first thought when it comes to foraging, but it is rather surprisingly one of the most nutrient dense plants on the planet, and well worth getting to know a little better.

a close up of a patch of nettles.

How to Identify Stinging Nettles

The young plants are vivid green in colour, darkening as the plant matures. The leaves, which grow in opposing pairs along the stem, are wide at the base and end in a pointed tip. They are heavily toothed around the edges. The stem is green, square in shape, and very fibrous. Both the leaves and the stem are covered in tiny, hollow hair-like needles which contain a number of skin irritating chemicals, such as histamine.

Stinging Nettles produce drooping flower strings on the female plants, and which are more upright on the male plant. They are not unlike catkins in appearance but are actually made up of tiny individual flowers. These individual flowers are usually white or green and are followed later in the year by the seeds. The immature seeds are green, and they darken to grey/brown when the plant begins to dry and die back.

How and When to Gather Stinging Nettles

Stinging Nettles can usually be found at any point during the year, even during the depths of Winter, you might find them lurking beneath the hedgerows and in other sheltered places, although you'll have to wait for Spring to find them in any great abundance. Their growth begins to gather speed during March, and it is from this point that they are considered prime for gathering. The very tips of the plant have the tenderest of leaves, and by just picking the tips, you leave the rest of the plant to continue growing so it can flower and go to seed. Once the plant begins to flower, they should be avoided as they can become bitter and can cause irritation to the kidneys.

The seeds should be gathered as soon as they appear in the green, and before the darken to brown. The seeds can be eaten raw, and they aren't covered in the stinging hairs like the rest of the plant, but their stems can still be a little prickly. They should be laid out to dry for a few days or on a low temperature in the oven before storing. It goes without saying that it's always a good idea to wear suitable gloves when harvesting Stinging Nettles, and I would even go so far as to suggest wearing long sleeves!

a basket full of foraged stinging nettle seeds

The Benefits of Stinging Nettles

When it comes to nutrition, Stinging Nettles are very much an under-rated super food. They are one of the most nutrient dense plants that nature has to offer being exceptionally high in Vitamins A, C and D, and they have around 4x the amount of Calcium than spinach and broccoli. They also contain high levels of iron and Magnesium.

The seeds which appear towards the end of Summer are considered to be the most nutritious part of the plant, and are known for their stimulating properties and will help to give your body an energetic boost. They can be used to help with stress and fatigue, and also have anti-inflammatory properties as well.

Stinging Nettles have long been considered a treatment for anemia and rheumatism, and the Victorians are said to have thrashed their aching joints with the stems in order to ease them, but the same effect can also be felt from just drinking Nettle tea, which is much more appealing! It is also said that drinking nettle tea every morning during the Summer will help to relieve the symptoms of hayfever. It is a plant which has been used for over thousands of years as food and as medicine, and I have no doubt that there are many uses lost to the days of old.

How to Make Use of Stinging Nettles

Stinging Nettles are an incredibly versatile plant and lend themselves well to quite a few different methods and recipes. Once they have been blanched for a few minutes to neautralise the sting, they can be cooked butter and a little salt for a simple side green in the same way you might use spinach or kale. They make a wonderfully earthy soup on their own, but can also be mixed with other wild Spring greens such as Dandelions and Wild Garlic, as well as added to other soups and stews. They can even be added to breads and cakes as well.

The leaves can be dried for storing to use later in the year, or for using to make Stinging Nettle tea, they can also be frozen in the same way as you might freeze spinach. The seeds can also be stored for quite some time once they have been dried. They are excellent for adding to bread, crackers, and dumplings and for sprinkling over salads and pasta dishes too.

I've linked a few of my own favourite recipes below.



The Cramlington Forager

Here I share my own recipes which I use to make the most of seasonal wild food. You'll find handy foraging guides and plant profiles to help get to know the plants which grow all around us, and to start you down your own foraging journey.


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