Nettles in the shade

Nettles thriving in the shade of a Japanese Maple

Have you ever eaten stinging nettles?

Believe it or not, they are delicious and good for you.

Urtica dioica, stinging nettles, contain vitamins A, C, and K, as well as several B vitamins. They also contain calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, and sodium, as well as all the essential amino acids, linoleic acid, quercetin, coumarins and other flavonoids, Beta-carotene, and lutein. Studies show that nettles raise blood antioxidant levels. Used as a cream or consumed as an extract, nettles appear to reduce inflammation, reducing arthritis in some human studies.

Other studies suggest that nettles help to relieve symptoms of enlarged prostate, by preventing the conversion of testosterone into dihydrotestosterone, (which enlarges the prostate). And many hay fever sufferers, including myself, have experienced the relief that nettle tea can bring. Another benefit may come to those with high blood pressure: nettles may increase nitric oxide, which is a vasodilator, and they contain compounds that relax your heart by reducing the force of contractions. (I wouldn’t recommend that people suffering heart failure consume nettles, unless their doctor approves. I’d say the same for people with hyperthyroidism.) One more effect of nettle consumption is the lowering of blood sugar levels, according to both human and animal studies. In all of these areas, more studies are needed, in spite of promising results so far.

Close up nettles

Spring’s new growth of nettles

And how can one consume nettles?

They sting! They’re difficult to harvest! The sting comes from little hairs on the leaves, usually on the underside, and on the stems. One just has to find a way to deal with those little hairs, i.e. get rid of them. One way to do that is to pour hot water on them, as an infusion. You can make tea from either fresh or dried nettles. I like to dry many of my nettles for long term storage, though I find that just drying them doesn’t get rid of ALL the stingers. But once you pour that boiling tea water on them, the needles of death simply disappear. Drying nettles is a great and easy way to store nettles (and other herbs), as the nutrients are preserved.

Surprise! Nettles can be used fresh. You can use fresh nettles in a soup. The first thing I do is rinse off the nettles and cut off any stems (use gloves!). Save all those stems and chop them up. Put them in a big jar and pour hot water on them, filling the jar. Leave this for a few days and then filter out the green material (throw it in the compost or use it as mulch outside somewhere). You can use this nettle stem tea as a foliar spray for your plants (I’d dilute it a bit), or simply water the plants with it.

Nettles in a bowl

Nettles ready for soup

Nettle stems in a bucket

Saving nettle stems for fertiliser

Meanwhile, chop up an onion and sauté it in olive oil with two chopped up potatoes in a soup pot. Add thyme, salt, any herbs you like. Stir fry a bit more, and feel free at this point to add a little white wine. Cook that down a bit to get the alcohol out. Toss in your nettle leaves and add broth. I use vegetable broth, but you can use chicken broth or just water if you like. I simmer this all until the potatoes are done. Turn off the heat, let it cool a little, and use a stick blender to puree it all well. At this point you can add some sort of milk (Oat milk or regular milk work, but some other milks have a strong taste) and reheat. Adjust for taste, add pepper, more salt if needed. The cooking of the nettles in the soup destroys the stingers.

Nettles in an outdoor sink

Washing nettles and capturing the water for other uses

Another favorite of mine is nettle pesto, and it’s become a staple at our house.

To make this one, you DO need to blanch the nettles to get rid of the stingers, because we’re using fresh nettles which won’t otherwise get cooked. I set a big pot of water to boil, and then I plunge the nettles in the boiling water for about thirty seconds. I pull them out with tongs and put them in a bowl of icy water, covering them well. Put them in a colander to drain. You can keep using that blanching water for all your batches (well, not on the next day!), and when you’re done with all your blanching, set the water aside to cool, and then pour it on your plants as fertilizer. Remember that nettles contain phosphorus, a mineral that’s vital for plant growth, and one that’s in ever shortening supply. Sometimes I spray my cooled leftover nettle water on leaves, too.

Walnuts in a pan on a stove

Now that you’ve prepared your nettles, it’s time to make pesto.

I don’t measure things exactly; I just eyeball things and estimate how much will fit into my food processor. First, I roast some walnuts (or almonds) on the stovetop. Make sure to watch them carefully and stir them around, because they can quickly burn. Use at least a cup for one batch. When the walnuts or almonds are a bit cooled off, I put them in the food processor with 3-5 cloves of garlic, olive oil, salt, and lemon juice. I grind them up a little, then add my blanched and well drained nettles and grind more. It should make a grainy paste. Taste and see if you want to add anything else. If you’re satisfied with the taste, spoon the pesto into small jars. You should use small jars of 4 oz or less, unless you’re throwing a party and making a giant batch. If you have a big jar of the stuff, and you’ve defrosted it, you will have to use it up fast, as it won’t keep very long in the fridge. I like to use old spice jars. Once your jars are full and the lids are on, freeze your pesto for another day. Save some for eating that night!

I don’t add any cheese to mine before freezing. Some people don’t like the cheese, so when I serve it, I just put some grated cheese on the table for people to add if they want. But you can add a lot of other things! Sometimes I run out of walnuts, so I use almonds, pine nuts, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, or hazelnuts. You can also add other greens, such as dandelion (get early ones – once they flower they can be really bitter), sheep sorrel, curly dock, bloody dock, plantain, chickweed, even cleavers. Have fun experimenting!

Pesto in a blender

The finished pesto

One good and easy way to consume nettles is by making and drinking nettle water; it’s basically sun tea.

Put a big handful or two of fresh or dried nettles in a one-quart jar, filling it about half way or a little less. Pour on boiling water and let stand in the sun for a few hours. Filter and refrigerate, and drink cold with ice. I like to add a bit of mint or lemon balm when I pour on the hot water, simply for the taste. Occasionally, my nettle water makes it to the back of the fridge, where it languishes away, forgotten. By the time I find it, it has become pretty disgusting, certainly not something I want to drink. Luckily, it’s good for your plants. Just pour it on a needy outdoor plant. It hasn’t gone to waste!

A quick note about foraging nettles. It’s best to get them well before they go to seed. I just snip off the tops, leaving plenty of stem. That way they can grow back. Never take the ones that are setting seed – we should leave those to make more nettle plants in the future. You can take off a few of the leaves, but they are tastier and more nutritious before they make seeds. Once they are seeding, they’re putting a lot of their energy into the seeds, not the stems and leaves. Never overharvest! That’s not fair to other people or forest creatures. It’s better to help them increase. That way there is more than enough for everyone.

Happy harvesting and eating!