Picking nettles is not really that high on many people’s list — they sting, sometimes for days, and that’s a bit of a turn-off for most. My most memorable nettle attack was when I was busy foraging elderflower. The nettles we’re thick, the slope was steep and the damn pesky nettle got me on the neck like a lover’s fiery kiss!
There are a few ways to pick nettles without getting stung. If you grab the plant from the top, pushing the hairs that sting down the stem, you won’t be stung, or so I am told. I rely on wearing my winter sheepskin mittens or pulling a plastic bag over my hand (which is far less effective than thick mittens) to protect me from the fine hairs that cause the burning sting the plant is famous for.
Despite the sting, it turns out nettles are very good for you. This guy sticks his hands in nettles to cure his hay fever. There are less painful and much tastier ways to enjoy them while still enjoying the many benefits. After picking them safely, all you need to do is stick them in a herb dryer — the one I use is just a big net basket with shelves in it. Leave them for a week and a bit and when they’re dry, pull the leaves off the stems and store in a jar for tea. I also grind them with my mortar and pestle to save on room — I can get more in a jar that way. The leaves still feel like they contain a sting when dried, but it’s not one that irritates or lasts.
I have a small tea infuser and also keep some muslin squares near my kettle to bind with a rubber band to make teabags. I’ll either grab a large pinch of dried leaves for my cuppa or dump a few teaspoons of the ground leaves and stalks in the infuser. Pour the boiling water over the top and wait for it to steep to the strength you like. I sweeten mine with honey — because I’m not sweet enough. It has a fresh grassy taste that is quite pleasant and would also go well with a squeeze of lemon.
The goodness of nettles
Nettle tea has all sorts of goodness. The plant contains histamine, formic acid, serotonin, and acetylcholine, which is what causes the sting when you touch them but has a load of benefits for you when you eat the plant. These same properties make it ideal for treating allergic eczema, acne and a bunch of other things.
Studies in Germany and Turkey have found the plant has antimicrobial, antioxidant, analgesic and anti-ulcer properties. A cup of nettle tea helps ease the pain of osteoarthritis and reduces inflammation.
According to multiple studies, in the right dosage, nettle root can prevent prostate enlargement (but not reverse it). It has also been found to help lower blood pressure.
If you suffer from menstrual pains, nettle tea can ease cramping and bloating while minimizing blood flow. It’s also thought it be a great detoxifier and increase the efficiency of your gut and lymphatic system.
For those of us who struggle with acne, eczema, age spots or even wrinkles, the anti-oxidant properties are perfect. There are myriad ways you can turn nettles into skincare tonics to relieve skin conditions or simply keep your skin looking and feeling fresh.
The many uses of nettles and ways they can boost our health haven’t done much for their reputation. Most people avoid nettles, and although they are extremely beneficial for a number of different health complains — or just for a refreshing cup of tea with zero caffeine — they aren’t all good, all of the time.
A word of warning about nettles
All parts of the stinging nettle plant can be used. From roots to the tips of the leaves, nettle has multiple uses. Seeds can be eaten or pressed for oil and are high in omega 3, the good fatty acids our bodies need. They also have liver and kidney protecting properties but how they support these organs requires more study as this remains unclear.
The stalks can be quite fibrous when fully grown and they’ve been used for around 3,000 years to make cordage or fabrics. They’re strong and durable. In WWI, German uniforms were made from nettle fibres. In Nepal they are woven into soft and delicate shawls, in Italy, they’re turned into fabrics.
While Urtica Dioica is a perennial plant, it shouldn’t be harvested for food all through its lifecycle. If you’re planning on eating the leaves and stems, foraging in spring will provide tender shoots with a sweeter flavour. As the plant ages and moves into its seeding faze, it becomes a little bitter and tough, so should be avoided — not just because of flavour and texture though.
When nettles begin to flower, a chemical change happens in the plant. This is great for butterflies and moths, not so much for us. The plant begins to produce cystoliths — tiny calcium carbonate rods that can be absorbed by our bodies and adversely interfere with kidney function.
Similarly to cannabis and hemp, nettles grow easily and suck up whatever is in the soil. They thrive in high nitrogen soils and grow almost anywhere in the UK (and now most parts of the world). Because of this, sites high in pesticide use, or where glyphosates have been used to control brambles or other weeds should be avoided. In fact, when foraging for any plants, berries, or roots, it is wise to avoid polluted areas, fields where glyphosates have been used and high traffic zones.
Ways to enjoy nettles
With all of this goodness going on, it’s not such a surprise that there are so many delicious recipes for eating them if you want a bit more than a cuppa. They have a light and almost sweet flavour that brings freshness to any dish. They’re high in potassium, calcium and magnesium, also iron, vitamin A, lots of the Bs and vitamin C. Needless to say, they make a healthy addition to your plate, and they’re free! If you are thinking of eating nettles, best not to dry them.
Pick your nettles with some protection and strip the leaves from the larger stalks, but keep the smaller tender stalks. If you’re not going to use them straight away, you can store them in the fridge for a week or so in a plastic bag.
When it comes time to use them, give them a rinse and bring a saucepan of water to the boil. Dump your nettles into the boiling water. Let them bubble away for no more than a minute or two. By this time, the sting is totally gone and they're limp but BRIGHT green and ready to add to your dish. I use them like this in pasta sauces, quiches, soup and mixed with spinach or cabbage for something a little different with our meals.
I dry nettles in the spring for making tea year-round, but having them fresh is something I really enjoy. I’m looking forward to some nettle pasta dishes with wild garlic when spring brings them back to life in the hedges and woodland where I live.