Identification and Harvest
Stinging nettles grow wild throughout the United States, and are very common in Massachusetts.
In Massachusetts, we see stinging nettles poke up in the springtime and die back down in late fall. They are perennial, so when you find a patch in the wild, you know they will keep coming up in that same spot each spring.
Stinging nettles propagate themselves with both seeds and creeping rhizomes. Clumps of nettles will continue to grow outward to cover larger areas over time. In good conditions, clumps of nettles can spread five feet in a single season.
Stinging nettles can grow to over one meter tall. They have an erect, unbranched stem that feels slightly square when you roll it between your fingers. The leaves are green, simple, and opposite, with saw-toothed margins. Leaves can be broad or narrowly egg-shaped, with a rounded base and pointed tip. The flowers are very small and greenish-white. They grow in clusters on slender, branched spikes formed in the leaf axils.
And last but not least—stinging nettle leaves and stems are covered with small, stinging hairs! Each hair contains a tiny droplet of formic acid. When the hair pierces your skin, it leaves behind some of this acid. This can cause an annoying itch or painful rash. For this reason, most people choose to wear gloves when harvesting.
There are other plants with similar-looking leaves, but none of these have stinging hairs. So as annoying as those hairs might be, they are also very useful to positively identify this edible plant.
To harvest nettles, just cut back the first two to three pairs of leaves. You can use a knife or scissors to do this. The plants will continue to grow throughout the season, so you may be able to return for a second cut a few weeks later.
Medicinal and Culinary Uses
Humans have been using stinging nettles for food, medicine, and textiles for thousands of years. Nettles are an excellent source of calcium, manganese, dietary fiber, and vitamins A, C, and K. The stems are made of fiber which can also be used to make fabric or cordage.
The leaves, stems, roots, and flowers are all used medicinally. People use stinging nettles to treat muscle or joint pain, eczema, arthritis, gout, and anemia. Nettles are also used to treat urinary tract infections and hay fever. They can be made into compresses or creams to treat sprains and strains, tendinitis, and insect bites. At Round the Bend Farm, we mostly use nettles as a nutrient-rich food source.
It’s important to understand that cooking or pulverizing nettles renders the stinging hairs totally harmless. When prepared correctly, this plant is delicious, nutritious, and very friendly. If you handle nettles carefully, they will not sting you.
The following are a few of the nettle recipes we use regularly at the farm.
Nettles can be used fresh or dried in tea. We dry and store several
pounds of nettle tea for use throughout the year.
Place the leaves in the dehydrator trays and dehydrate at lowtemperature overnight, or until fully dry.
Store in a tightly sealed glass jar. Dried nettles last for about a year in storage.
To brew the tea, put one ounce dried nettles in a pot and cover with hot (about 140 degrees F) water. Let steep for 10 minutes, and remove the leaves. This water temperature and steeping time will maximize nettles’ level of vitamin C.
Once you’ve dehydrated nettle leaves, you can pulverize them into a powder for baking. Nettle powder can then be added to smoothies, baked goods, pasta, crackers, or other dishes. One ounce of fresh nettles makes about one tablespoon of dried nettle powder.
You can cook nettles in any recipe that calls for cooked spinach. We’ve used them on pizza, in quiches, and in casseroles. Here are two simple recipes we love to eat on the farm.
Nettles and Eggs
2 cups packed nettle leaves
1 cup water
optional spices to taste: salt, pepper, garlic powder, paprika
Put a little oil in a skillet and heat it on the stove. Add the fresh nettles to the pan, along with about a cup of water. Stir the leaves to distribute, and cover the pan. Let cook over medium heat for a couple minutes, or until the nettles have wilted and the water evaporates. Crack the eggs on top of the nettles, sprinkle on the optional spices, and cover the skillet again with the lid. Let cook until the eggs reach your desired consistency. Take off the heat, and serve.
Nettle Tomato Sauce
8 oz tomato sauce
1 cup or more packed nettles
Heat your sauce on the stove until it’s ready to serve. Add the fresh nettle leaves and stir them into the sauce. Continue to cook for a minute or until the nettles have fully wilted into the sauce. Serve hot with pasta.
You are what you eat–go now and become a nettle!