Real Food Encyclopedia | Nettles
You might have heard of stinging nettles and wondered if those are the same nettles you see being sold at the farmers’ market. The answer is yes, but don’t get scared. Nettles, once soaked or cooked, are no longer painful to eat and are actually delicious. Nettles, often a roadside weed, are largely foraged (instead of farmed), and available for a slim window in the spring.
Fun Facts about Nettles:
- Nettles are as old — if not older — as the Bible, where the plant is referenced at least four times. Some historians point to ancient Egypt as its historical birthplace, yet others are drawn to Bronze Age Austria, where nettle fabric was used in burial shrouds.
- It’s widely agreed among historians that Native Americans used nettles for medicine and food, but also for textiles; the fiber, which is stronger than cotton and closely related to woven flax, was used to make twine, fishing nets and rope.
What to Look for When Buying or Foraging Nettles
The best time to harvest nettles (or buy them from someone else who has harvested them) is when they’re young and the stems are tender, before flower buds appear. Young plants will be shorter, about a foot tall (approximately knee high); older, tougher-leaved plants will be bushier and as tall as six feet. Upper leaves will likely be more tender. Choose foraging locations that are less likely to be sprayed with chemicals or contaminated by car emissions. When buying nettles, avoid signs of decay, such as browning or soggy leaves.
If you live near a forest or a stream or other swampy spots in temperate climates, you probably have nettles in your midst. Check out this informative how-to video with Seattle-based author and forager Langdon Cook.
Sustainability of Nettles
In general, nettles are not cultivated/farmed, they just grow in the wild. The stinging nettle is known in the plant world as Urtica dioica, a perennial herb and member of the extensive Urticaceae family. It grows wild in forests and woodlands, often near streams and rivers, throughout North America, Europe, parts of Asia, Russia and northern Africa. Not all nettles are stinging, but most, if not all, of what grows in North America is of the stinging variety.
Because nettles are a foraged, rather than commodity crop, there’s no data on pesticide load, as per the Environmental Working Group’s Shoppers Guide to Pesticides in Produce. To date, there are two ways to obtain nettles: by foraging in the wild or buying locally from a farmer who’s doing the foraging for you. While it’s fair to assume that by and large nettles have a relatively low pesticide load, keep in mind that roadside nettle beds may bear the brunt of vehicle emissions.
Nettles and Soil Fertility
The nettle, as a member of the botanical world, is an environmental steward. Forest rangers consider a nettle patch an indicator of high soil fertility. In the United Kingdom, it is considered one of the most important native plants for wildlife, as it is a source of food for all kinds of insects, butterflies, moths and birds, as well as an egg-laying haven for ladybugs, which of course keep other plant-eating aphids away.
Everyone talks about asparagus and ramps being the harbinger of spring, but nettles probably have them both beat. Depending on where you live, nettles start showing up in late winter and early spring. Although they don’t mind the sun, they can’t take the heat, so your first day above 90 degrees, you can wave those nettles bye-bye until fall.
Once picked, nettles are extremely perishable. They’ll keep in the refrigerator for just a few days. Wrap in a towel then in a loosely tied plastic bag — the double layer is a reminder of the stingers.
And remember: until nettles are cooked, wear protective gloves while handling.
Cooking with Nettles
Once you get through the cleaning and blanching (aka sting removal) steps, most of the hard work is done. Like spinach and chard, the nettle is a quick-cooking green and presents many opportunities to get creative in the kitchen. There’s nettle soup, sauce and pesto to consider. You can throw it into a fritatta or top off a pizza dough. It makes for terrific ravioli filling, or butter-braised, as a fun partner with short pasta.
If you’ve got more nettles than time on your hands, you can blanch nettles in salted boiling water for about a minute, drop in ice water, drain, then prep into bags for freezing. Place drained nettles in a kitchen towel and roll tightly, “like a candy wrapper,” writes food blogger and cookbook author Hank Shaw. “One end twists one way, the other end twists the opposite way. Squeeeeze! More blue-green liquid runs out. Now you’re done. You have prepped stinging nettles, ready to be frozen in a vacuum-seal bag or Ziploc, or cooked in any number of ways.” You can also save the blanching water for stock and freeze for later, or dry nettle leaves for tea.
If ever there was a poster child for Food as Medicine, the stinging nettle is it. Certainly, it’s plenty nutritious: one cup of blanched nettles contains six grams of fiber and more than two grams of protein, for just 37 calories. It’s a good source of vitamins A and K, calcium, iron, potassium and magnesium. It is also rich in chlorophyll, a known antioxidant and blood builder.
But the nettle goes way beyond the nutritional call of duty. The stinging nettle has for millennia been revered as a botanical healer and used to treat numerous physical ailments that continue to intrigue medical researchers today. Naturally detoxifying and anti-inflammatory, nettles have been a traditional remedy for sundry conditions, gout, anemia and joint pain among them. It has long been a part of the Native American medicine chest, not only as a general tonic but to help during childbirth and reduce fevers.
In recent years, it has been studied for its potential in treating diabetes, seasonal allergies and pain associated with arthritis, as well as urinary problems resulting from an enlarged prostate. It’s even being studied for its potential to treat livestock diseases.