Foraging for Stinging Nettle: A nutritious wild edible

Stinging Nettle – Urtica dioica
(In Irish: Neantóg / Leanntóg)

In a world that seems to be dominated by fast and convenient food, do you ever wonder if there’s such a thing as a free meal? Inspired by the “obviously” impending apocalypse and my love for survival, I aim to share the best food that can be found in the wild. And nettles are a powerhouse when it comes to your health!

Remember as always, you may think you know a plant but always be cautious and cross-reference to be 100% sure it is the correct plant. Non-edible and poisonous look-alikes could fool you.

As I said, today we’re looking at the stinging nettle.

Stinging Nettle

I know what you’re thinking, why in the world would I want to go near a wild food plant that has the potential to sting me over and over? The stuff of childhood nightmares! Well, if you don’t understand, you must try one of the delicious nettle recipes, like the mouth-watering stinging nettle pesto!

Also known as the common nettle or less commonly as Urtica dioica its scientific name, this green plant is well known for causing intense stinging pain and havoc when brushed against unsuspecting skin.

a red admiral butterfly on a stinging nettle leaf
Photo by Mike B on Pexels.com

Abundant in Ireland, nettles love the rich and fertile soil that is common to this green land and is well known as a wild food.

How to identify nettles

To avoid the more painful way of identifying a stinging nettle, take a closer look at the stem. You should see hairs lining it. When young, they have a lush green colour and serrated pear-shaped leaves.

Where to find nettles

If you want to know where to find nettle leaves, look along rivers and streams and in damp areas. Although in truth, you can find them all over the country!

The best time of year to forage in Ireland for nettles is during March, April and May just before they blossom and seed.

When foraging nettles try to stay away from roadsides or crops to make sure they haven’t been sprayed.

Flowering Period

It’s worth noting that there’s a difference between stinging nettles and dead nettles (Lamium purpureum). Dead nettles are very similar in appearance with a slightly more elongated leaf and no sting. But the good news is that dead nettles are also edible.

purple wildflowers growing in field on cloudy day
Dead Nettles (Lamium purpureum). Photo by Nguyen Hung on Pexels.com

For those who have had their curiosity triggered will want to know how to cook this delicious zingy plant.

How to harvest nettles

Pick only the young and tender leaves closest to the top of the plant. The stalk should still be green and not brown.

The older leaves tend to taste quite bitter whereas the young leaves are similar to spinach but with a slightly punchy peppery taste. It is a good idea to wear gloves if you want to avoid sore, stung fingers when harvesting or chopping.

When foraging in Ireland you can almost always find dock leaves growing near nettles which is amazing as we learned growing up to use their properties to ease nettle stings. Just rub them directly onto the affected area.

As the old Irish saying goes: “Neantóg a dhóigh mé agus cupóg a leigheas mé” (A nettle stung me and a dock leaf cured me!)

Nettle health benefits

It’s no secret that nettles contain many nutrients and is rich in many vitamins, like vitamin C, which is a powerful aid to the immune system. You will also find vitamin A in nettles (necessary for eye health).

Nutritional benefits of nettles:

  • Vitamins: Vitamins A, C and K, as well as several B vitamins
  • Minerals: Calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium and sodium
  • Fats: Linoleic acid, linolenic acid, palmitic acid, stearic acid and oleic acid
  • Amino acids: All of the essential amino acids
  • Polyphenols: Kaempferol, quercetin, caffeic acid, coumarins and other flavonoids
  • Pigments: Beta-carotene, lutein, luteoxanthin and other carotenoids

Cook stinging nettles

I’d recommend cooking foraged nettle leaves the same way you cook fresh greens, such as spinach, and it’s great to add to a soup, stir fry, scrambled eggs or even make a cup of nettle tea!

What’s also fantastic about the stinging nettle plant is that you can dry or freeze the leaves for later use, but to be honest when cooking they’re definitely best used fresh. Once the plant is cooked or dried its sting will be gone so you won’t have to worry about getting stung. Phew!

Aside from cooking, this wondrous wild food has also been used as a cleansing tonic for centuries. Nettle is known for its healing ability to flush away toxins from the body to keep you revitalised and restored.

Recipe: Classic Nettle Soup

Ingredients:

  • Salt
  • 500g young nettles (remember they’re young if they have green stems!)
  • 30g butter (plant-based if preferred)
  • 1 small red onion (finely chopped)
  • 2 garlic cloves (crushed)
  • Nutmeg
  • 2 tbsp flour
  • 500ml milk (plant-based if preferred)
  • 300ml chicken or vegetable stock

Method:

  1. Bring a large pan of salted water to a boil.
  2. In another pan, melt the butter and then sautée the onion with a pinch of salt, until soft and translucent.
  3. Stir in the garlic to the butter pan and also add a grating of nutmeg.
  4. Soften the garlic in the pan and then stir in the flour for another couple of minutes.
  5. From this point, you want to gradually whisk in your milk until you have a smooth paste and once that’s done and all your milk is in, add the stock. You’re looking to thicken it here but not so thick that it’s gloopy.
  6. Fill a large bowl with cold water.
  7. It’s time to blanch your nettles! This is a two-step process. Tip the nettles into the pot of boiling water and blanch for about four minutes, until wilted and soft.
  8. Scoop out the nettles using something like a slotted spoon and then plunge them into the cold water to stop them from cooking any further. This is how you’ll keep the vibrant green colour.
  9.  Squeeze out as much water as possible and roughly chop. Don’t worry, the sting is gone.
  10. Add the nettles to the soup pot, then liquidise the mix. You can add more stock or milk if it becomes too thick.

Stinging nettle as fertiliser

First, you need to make a tea of sorts and let it all macerate. Add around 1kg of nettles to 20 litres of water. Use the liquid undiluted when it starts to smell. Believe me, you’ll smell it.

This usually takes a couple of weeks. and place it into a large container to start your continuous free fertiliser. You can apply this fantastic mix liberally to your growing plants!

As always, happy, safe and sustainable foraging.


As always, do not forage anything you’re not 100% certain you can identify. 

(Lead image via WikimediaCommons/LeslieSeaton)

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