Saturday, April 6, 2013

'Tis the Season to Harvest Nettles

I've grown up in the high dessert mountains which means scrub brush, poison oak, Mojave Green rattlers, and stinging nettle. The nettle always seemed to infest the best fort making areas... shady cool spots under trampolines and under sage brush branches. Now, I know where to expect it... cool, shady, moist areas with healthy soil such as creek beds. Nettle favors areas near berry bushes, specifically blackberries, sometimes even choking the plant.

Like many herbs and plants with medicinal uses, stinging nettle is considered painful and an invasive weed. In our garden it has taken over the spot for potatoes and lines all of our raised bed boxes. I harvested about four pounds of nettle shoots and leaves this morning alone! 

The first step to nettle harvesting is ensuring that you are properly protected. Thick gloves, a heavy jacket, tough jeans, and boots are a must. I made the mistake of using garden gloves and my hands are riddled with stinging bumps. The best time to harvest nettle is from late March through April when the leaves are tender and between one and three inches wide. If the plant is flowering, you are too late, but you will have twice as much next year to remind you. (Note: there are other uses for mature stinging nettle plants not addressed in this post.)

How to Spot Stinging Nettle 
When you look up descriptions of nettles, they use words like ‘rhizomatous’ or ‘dioecious.’ While it is good to know that there is a male and female nettle plant and the root system sends off shoots, that won’t help locate or avoid it. It commonly grows in shady wooded areas with other weeds in a ‘chain’ of plants because the root system sends out shoots to grow more plants. There is never just one plant... nettles need other nettles to pollinate and grow more nettle plants. On average, the plants are two feet tall with pointed egg shaped leaves and serrated edges. It is entirely covered in tiny hairs.  Any Boy (or Girl) Scout would also know that there are 3-5 main veins on the leaves with hairs that are like needles which inject inflammatory chemicals, creating a burning sensation.  

Harvesting and Processing
Once you are protected and have found a patch of nettle, you’re all set to forage to your heart’s content. The best way I’ve discovered is to start furthest away from the biggest plant working your way in, so you don’t accidentally bury your knee in an unseen plant. While jeans are tough, the little buggers can worm their way through almost anything. Don’t cut it at the base, but trim about a third of the way from the top. This will ensure that the plant will continue to grow and seed for a future crop. Also the lower leaves are tougher and more difficult to process. I filled a plastic bag with trimmings in about twenty minutes. You can also just trim the leaves off, but it takes longer on the harvesting end. I prefer to take the stalks and trim the leaves straight into the pot. 

After this, soak the leaves in a full pot of water for about twenty minutes and then rinse them about 3 times. At this point most of the stinging hairs will be gone, but I wouldn’t advise rinsing with your bare hands. 

After rinsing well, fill the pot back up with water and simmer for five to ten minutes. After this you can do a couple things. I strained and dehydrated the leaves for medicinal use and reserved the simmered broth for tea. Nettle greens are as nutritious as spinach and delicious with a little butter and pepper, giving it an earthy flavor. Nettle Soup, made of the broth and leaves from the cooked green, is a well known early spring dish. 

Stung... Now What?
I always end up with a couple stings even when I use the right gear. It can be annoying and even painful if you get an armful of the tiny needle-like hairs. Traditional remedies include a “tough luck” from your mother, aloe vera, and a paste of baking soda and water. Like most semi-poisonous plants, the remedy grows near by. Yellow dock, another edible plant, takes the sting away. (It can also be used in salads and as a laxative.)

If your sting is keeping you from work, look for the smooth long leaves (that are almost more prolific than stinging nettle!). In the fall they can develop red spots which makes it easier to notice them. I usually make a paste by chewing it a bit and caking it on the stung area. The more delicate individuals just rub it on. 

If you can’t find dock, plantain works just as well, but only if it is fresh. They sell dry plantain leaves, but those work best as tinctures and infusions. Also used in wild salads, it is claimed to be an anecdote for many poisons and toxins ranging from spider and snake bites to worms and laryngitis. It usually has long slender leaves, but sometimes you'll find the more mature plant with fuller oval leaves. 

Why Bother? 
It is difficult to gather and mess with nettle... it can seem more trouble than its worth! But... nettle is high in iron, calcium, and silica. It is considered a tonic food and given to people with anemia, circulatory disorders, and rheumatic problems. It can reduce inflammation and assist in tissue repair. Traditionally, joints would be flayed with the leaves to reduce swelling and in a recent double blind study, it worked. It is excellent for the skin helping with eczema and psoriasis. It also helps children prone to nosebleeds, allergies, asthma, and hay fever. For the more vain, it is a good hair rinse leaving a slightly tingly feeling in the scalp. NOTE: It should not be taken by pregnant women as it can cause miscarriage and was used as an abortive herb in ancient Rome. 

As with any foraging adventure, there is usually more to the story... gathering stinging nettle is not for the faint of heart and certainly not boring! You can read my own hunting mission and mishap on my post... Mountain Girls Eat Nettle.

Forage on...


  1. It's interesting you mentioned nettle not being for pregnant women. My midwife has me drinking tea with nettle in it. I think it has a low amount though.

  2. Nettles are not for pregnant women? I have to completely disagree!

    1. Thank you, Kerimae & Rachel... we'll look into it some more. As always, each person needs to do their own research and do what they are comfortable with. It's also important to note that some people are also more sensitive than others and unless they know how they react with certain herbs/plants, it would best to be cautious. Lobelia is one of those herbs that some people totally avoid and others feel is both safe and beneficial to use in small amounts.

      Thanks again for weighing in the subject!
      ~ Amy

  3. It also might be a dosage issue. From what I read, eating nettle causes muscles to relax which can lead to miscarriage . The books I studied had a general warning about eating them.

    I had been doing some separate research on childbirth in history and picked up the abortive element from a couple history books. Because it was mentioned often I figured it would be wise to mention it. Maybe tea isn't as much of a risk or if you had already adapted to the nettle's effects it would be good. I couldn't say for sure though.

  4. I see others said what I was going to! I've always heard that nettles were great for pregnancy! Especially with the extra iron and help with circulation. I began drinking homegrown nettle tea during my last pregnancy and found it beneficial...though now I'd love to know if I was taking a huge risk!

  5. Okay... here is something a bit more definitive. "Although use as a tonic is considered safe in pregnancy, concentrated extracts of stinging nettles (such as used to treat hay fever) can act as an abortifacient." - from this site:

    Also this comment from

    "Many herbs used in teas, when taken in large or medicinal amounts, can be harmful. Some may even increase the odds of miscarriage, early labor, or low birth weight.
    Herbs that may cause problems include anise, ginger, lime blossom, rose hip, catnip, chamomile, comfrey, ephedra (called ma huang in traditional Chinese medicine and banned in the U.S. since 2004), European mistletoe, hibiscus, horehound, Labrador, lemongrass, licorice root, mugwort, pennyroyal, raspberry leaf, rosemary, sage, sassafras, stinging nettle leaf, vetiver, and yarrow."

    If your midwife recommends it, she should also be giving you the recommended dosage and warnings. Herbs are VERY POWERFUL and should be respected. That doesn't mean you shouldn't use them, but you should be fully informed, particularly during pregnancy, and use them carefully. It would only be right for us to err on the side of caution when advising readers here at Homestead Revival.
    ~ Amy

  6. If anyone is worried about consuming nettles while pregnant, just wait until you are "term" (36-37 weeks) to start drinking it as a tea. It really is an excellent way to prepare for childbirth, to build up your stores of iron and vitamin K before the big day. Personally, I drink it all through my third trimester and have never had a problem. I think your body would give you warning signs before it became a problem.

  7. Very interesting! Makes me want to gear up and see if we have any nettle around here, though, I'm in Zone 4 of the frigid northeast. At this point, buds are barely discernible let alone leaves! I may have to wait a few weeks.
    And Kate, you have such a maturity about you... I never know whether I'm reading yours or your mother's posts till I get to the end. You're a wise and learned young woman.
    This was very informative... thanks!

  8. I've been really wanting to do this!! :) Now I'm going to try. Does the baking soda and water paste work? I'm not sure if I could know enough to locate the other plants nearby. :)

  9. G'Morning to the Walker ladies!!!!

    Here's the deal. Although I did a pretty extensive gardening project last year, my move back to CA is opening up a new world (mostly because of the incomparable weather!) and I've undertaken a garden plan on a grand scheme, both for my own garden (all containers right now... boo) and for my parents (in raised bed). All heirloom. Broccoli, Kale (my favorite!), Toms, Cutting lettuces, Artichoke, etc. But I'm wondering about corn. I'm getting away from refined flours, but companies like Bob's Red Mill are too expensive to have a regular rotation on my grocery list. What corn do you prefer for meal, and do you think it's worth all the work it requires???

    Stephanie Brohmer

    1. Hi Stephanie, You're moving back to CA??!! So glad! I haven't grown any corn in years, but if I were, I'd get seeds from Baker Creek ( I get my corn from Azure Standard (organic only to avoid GMOs) and I grind my own. Maybe I'll try growing some soon.
      Can't wait to see you!!

  10. Also, I'm looking into getting a canner so I can preserve more basic (v. acidic) goods. Is there one you recommend?

    1. For pressure canners I recommend American Pressure Canners (see www.pantryparatus). For a water bath canner, you could go with one of several but Ball Brand is easiest to find.

  11. Fascinating~Thanks for all the great info. We have it growing on one end of our property. I'd have to get my 'courage up' to harvest and then do something with it. For now, I'm glad it's there :)

  12. I finally got to try nettles. Got them at the farmer's market a few weeks in a row. I love it! And now I think I found some growing on my driveway. It looks just like the picture. I sure hope it is. I have little sticks around it. Thanks for the great post!


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