Not surprisingly, stinging nettles get a bad rap in the garden, since they often take the form of a prickly weed. But among herbalists, nettles are considered a powerhouse green, rich in vitamins and minerals and great for boosting your health and wellness. For centuries, the leaves and roots have been incorporated into teas, tinctures, balms, or poultices to treat a variety of ailments. Today, we’ve learned that we can get all the health benefits with less fuss by simply cooking nettle leaves and adding them to soups, salads, and baked dishes as a substitute for spinach or kale.
Nettle leaves are dark green and about 2 to 4 inches in length, with jagged edges. In the wild, these perennial flowering plants grow on long stalks covered with thousands of silvery-white “needles.” Beware, these needles are quite sharp if you’re not wearing gloves.
Once leaves are dried and packaged, they slightly resemble dried mint or basil.
Many compare the flavor of nettles to raw spinach: a bit earthy, with a slightly astringent bite.
If you’re interested in foraging, you’ll find fresh stinging nettles all over the world from early spring through early fall, especially in Europe, Asia, western North America and northern Africa.
Dried nettles are available all year long and readily available in health food stores and specialty markets.
Edible fresh nettles are at their best in the late spring and early summer throughout the US and Europe.
When foraging for nettles, choose the top few leaves and buds of a young nettles plant for best flavor. The root isn’t used in cooking, but may be ground and steeped to make a medicinal tincture or balm.
When buying dried nettles, make sure the leaves aren’t powdery (which could mean rot). Ensure the package is free of moisture, as that could promote bacteria growth.
When deciding whether to purchase organic or non-organic produce, it’s helpful to know which fruits and vegetables are most affected by pesticides. Pesticides are toxins used to kill insects, invasive plants, and fungi during the growth of produce, and are potentially dangerous to people. National and international agencies agree that prolonged exposure to specific pesticides through food consumption is a potential health risk. Additionally, some studies indicate that organic fruits and vegetables have a higher concentration of vitamins and minerals than conventionally raised produce.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) is an environmental health advocacy and research organization in the United States. From cosmetics to produce, water to cleaning products, EWG provides insight regarding the impact of pesticides, manufacturing practices, and product ingredients on our health and environment. EWG produces a consumer guide ranking 48 fruits and vegetables with pesticide residue. The higher the rank, the lower the residue. In this ranking, the 12 most affected fruits and vegetables belong to the “Dirty Dozen,” and the 15 least affected are part of the “Clean Fifteen.” These lists help identify the produce that is most—and least—dramatically affected by pesticides.
Nettles don’t appear on any EWG list, but if picking wild, consider the source of harvest and if it’s an area free of contaminants; and if buying from a local farmer, ask questions about farming practices.
Wrap unwashed fresh nettles in a paper towel, then store loosely in a plastic bag in the refrigerator for two or three days. Cooked nettles will keep well in an airtight container for four to five days.
Keep dried and dehydrated nettle leaves sealed in plastic bags for up to three months.
Never eat stinging nettles raw, otherwise you’ll understand the name much more intimately! Use plastic gloves to rinse the nettle leaves, then blanch or boil them until just wilted before adding to heated dishes. Alternately, steep the freshly washed leaves in boiling water for about 15 minutes for tea.
Also consider drying fresh nettles in a dehydrator to store for later use. Dried nettles don’t have to be reconstituted.
Vitamin K, specifically vitamin K2, is helpful for regulating and directing dietary calcium in and out of the bones. It is also responsible for proper blood clotting and may aid in protecting the arteries from calcification.
A fat-soluble nutrient, vitamin A is involved in the development of rhodopsin, a molecule in the eye that promotes healthy vision. Vitamin A is also responsible for promoting the immune system, cell growth, skin health, and the formation of the heart and lungs as well as other bodily organs.
Riboflavin is helpful for metabolism, aiding in fatty acid energy release. Vitamin B2 is also important for metabolizing proteins, ketone bodies, and carbohydrates.
Amino acids and lipids are the main nutrients metabolized by vitamin B6, helping to promote proper energy levels throughout the body. It is also an important aspect of the formation of hemoglobin and neurotransmitters, protecting both the cardiovascular system and brain.
Another energy-producing vitamin, niacin is responsible for transporting energy and metabolizing glucose within the cell. This vitamin may be helpful for regulating blood sugar after a carbohydrate-heavy meal.
In addition to offering vitamin and mineral benefits, nettles have been used for centuries as a medicinal herb in many cultures. Though more research is still needed to verify the effectiveness of nettles to treat various conditions, you may find a variety of over-the-counter products featuring stinging nettles to relieve allergies, painful joints and muscles, eczema, insect bites, and urinary problems like gout.
Just like any other type of herb or medication, consult your healthcare professional before adding nettles to your routine. They may not react well with certain types of medication.
- The Latin term for stinging nettles, also known as common nettles, is Urtica dioica, the root of which means “I burn.”
- Foraging for nettles is a popular pastime for people who enjoy sourcing wild food. If you find nettles in your garden but don’t care to eat them, you can steep them in a bucket of water for about a week to create liquid plant food.
- The root and the leaves of stinging nettles have different medicinal properties, so some products are made with one and not the other.