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.
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.