On February 26, I harvested the first nettles of 2020. As one of the first wild edible greens to appear, and full of vitamins and minerals, nettles have long been used as a spring tonic. My patch is just beginning to sprout, so this first basket is a token, a promise of good things to come. I feel energized just thinking about the three seasons of foraged food ahead.

Working with nettles is easy if you take a little care. (Personally I have come to welcome the sting, more about that later, but your mileage may vary.) I use a gathering basket and harvest with scissors. With a glove on the left hand, hold the tip and snip off the top four inches, about two or three leaf nodes down. Drop it into the basket and repeat. As with all wild foraging, harvest less than a third of the patch to ensure it is not depleted by over-harvesting. However, since nettles spread by rhizomes as well as seeds, and are considered to be an invasive weed, you really don’t have to worry too much about this one’s survival.

Back home, I rinse the harvest in a sinkful of water and lift them out with a pasta server. I cook the nettles in a couple of inches of filtered water, more than I would normally use for tender greens because I strain and save the “tea” or “broth.” I don’t love drinking it straight up as many people recommend, but I never waste it. I freeze it in ice cube trays and use it as a nutritious addition to soups and smoothies year round. We have bone broth soup every day for lunch (yes, seriously) and when it’s too hot, a nettle broth ice cube brings it to just the right temperature. A nettle broth cube blended into a smoothie adds health benefits without changing the flavour noticeably.

Stinging nettles ready to cook

As I mentioned in last year’s nettle post, nettles and cauliflower are a delicious combination, so much so that my son-in-law asked me to bring this dish to the feast he hosted to celebrate Thanksgiving and Lydia’s 30th birthday. That could have been tricky in October since nettles are spring food, but fortunately I had plenty put by in the freezer.

During February, I was making a point of using up the last of the frozen nettles in anticipation of the new harvest. My current way to serve them is as a cream sauce for gluten free pasta or zoodles. It’s so easy. Puree the cooked nettles with a quarter cup of cream, or in our case, coconut milk. Add fresh ground pepper and seasoning salt to taste. I generally add a thawed (ice) cube or two of pesto that I made the previous summer. If you don’t have a basil-based pesto on hand, a teaspoon of dried basil will give a similar flavour. Heat this sauce to table temperature, stir it into the pasta and serve. Wonderful comfort food, for sure.

What about the Sting?

Nettles will not sting once they have been dried, or cooked for a couple of minutes. Children seem to be more distressed by contact with nettles than adults. Personally, I find my reaction is more of a tingle than a sting, almost exactly like the sensation you get from a tens machine. This spring when I found my small treasure trove of first nettles, I tapped a fresh sprig on the osteoarthritis zone in both of my thumb bases. The tingling lasts for a couple of days. I can’t say if there is any long term benefit, but I don’t mind the feeling at all, and nettles have a long history of use for reduction of certain kinds of pain.

Nettle Benefits

Nettles are traditionally known as a spring cleanse, a tonic, and blood purifier for good reason. I heard one health professional say nettles are so beneficial that people should eat them every day. They are extremely high in protein, and rich in vitamins and minerals, especially iron. In the practice of a herbalist, they might be used as a seasonal allergy remedy, a pain reliever, an anti-inflammatory, or a treatment for relief from the symptoms of benign prostatic hyperplasia. The broth is often recommended for bouts of head and chest colds and bronchitis, and as a gargle for sore throat and gums. That makes sense since it is much higher in Vitamin C than orange juice.

With a little vinegar added, nettle broth makes a good hair rinse that stimulates growth and makes hair thicker and shinier. I haven’t tried this personally. I know that nettle is also used as a wool and fabric dye, so I wonder if this treatment would turn my gray hairs green. If I ever experiment in that direction, I’ll let you know.

After the plants are too mature to eat as greens, nettles can still be used for fiber to make into paper, cordage and linen-like fabric. Nettle paper sounds like an charming project.