Embrace the Stinging Nettle

Northwest natives are very familiar with stinging nettles. They are a nuisance for berry pickers, mushroom hunters, and hikers. My kids used to get stung often when they were playing in the woods. They seem to grow everywhere! Their leaves and stems have hair-like structures that “sting” with the slightest touch, which produces itching, redness, and swelling. Let’s be honest, sometimes even tears.

However, don’t hate the nettle! There is a lot to love about this prolific weed. Stinging nettle is a staple in herbal medicine. Drinking nettle tea has shown positive effects in urinary tract health, reducing arthritic pain, soothing digestive issues, and blood sugar management. There is also evidence that it can help to reduce hay fever and seasonal allergies.

Nettles are packed with an abundance of nutrients, including minerals and antioxidants that support your health on a cellular level by reducing the damage of free radicals. Free radicals form as a natural by-product of energy production in our cells, but they can also form as a result of exposure to pollution, alcohol, tobacco smoke, heavy metals, industrial solvents, pesticides, and radiation. Free radicals induce oxidative stress that has been linked to many disease processes including diabetes, Alzheimer’s, asthma, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. Antioxidants serve to neutralize free radicals. You can see how important it is to boost your consumption of these vital nutrients to make them available to your cells.

With this insight, you may never look at the stinging nettle the same, hateful way. Think of them as Sour Patch Kids: They sting up front, but provide delicious goodness later. Make the best of our stinging nettle abundance and take advantage of the many healing and health benefits that stinging nettles provide.

Spring is the best time to harvest nettles. Wear rubber gloves to avoid being stung. Clip only the small shoots that are less than six inches tall. Nettles can grow to heights in excess four feet, but the leaves become very bitter on mature plants. Remember to avoid harvesting in areas that may have been sprayed with herbicides.

Nettles are a nutritious and easy addition to your diet. Don’t worry, the sting goes away when they are cooked or dried. If consuming fresh, blanch the nettle leaves and stems first, and then use as you would any other dark leafy green, like spinach, kale, chard or parsley. Try fresh nettles in the recipes that I include below or dry them to use in tea throughout the year.

You can dry the leaves and stems using a dehydrator, or simply tie them in small bundles and hang upside down. Typically, the stems take longer to dry out than the leaves, so use the stems to determine the degree of dehydration. Keep the leaves and stems in large pieces, and store in glass jars.

Fresh Nettle Tea

Combine 2 cups of water and 1 cup of fresh nettle leaves in a pot on the stove. Bring to a boil and turn off the heat. Let the mixture stand for about 5 minutes before you pour it through a strainer to enjoy. It has a robust flavor. You can add a little honey, lemon, and ginger to elevate your nettle tea experience. Or, add fresh mint or other herbs to create a more complex flavor.

Potato, Sorrel, and Nettle Soup

Courtesy of Judith Weinstock and the Kingston Hotel Café Cookbook

Makes 4 servings

  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic

  • 2 cups diced onion

  • 4 cups unpeeled, cubed potatoes

  • 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

  • 4 cups of water

  • 1 cup chopped sorrel leaves, packed

  • 1 cup chopped nettle leaves, packed

  • 2 teaspoons salt

  • ½ teaspoon pepper

  • Zest of 1 lemon

  • 1 tablespoon minced, fresh dill

  • 2/3 cup organic cream

In a medium-sized soup pot, sauté the garlic, onion, and potato in the oil. Add the water, cover, and bring to a boil. Turn down to low and simmer for 30 minutes.

Blend half of the potato mixture to a smooth puree and return to the pot. Add sorrel, nettles, salt, pepper, lemon zest, dill, and cream. Heat, but do not boil.