How to Safely Harvest and Use Stinging Nettles
When it comes to increasing your self-sufficiency, taking control of your food supply and nutrition, saving your hard earned money and even knowing how to survive in an emergency situation, there’s perhaps no more valuable, all-encompassing skill than learning to forage for wild edibles.
Wild edibles are the earliest form of food (and medicine) known to man. Human beings used to hunt and forage for all of their food long before farming was invented, and certainly before markets and grocery stores stocked everything we could ever want or need on their shelves. Our species literally owes our very existence to this valuable skill.
Today, we most often turn to stores and perhaps even to our own gardens for food and medicine. But wild edibles still exist all around us and are just waiting to be harvested and put to good use. The biggest problem is that many of us lack the traditional knowledge we need to know what wild plants are edible, where to find them, how to identify them, how to harvest them safely and responsibly, and how use them to our full advantage.
Luckily this knowledge hasn’t completely disappeared, and as people are taking a growing interest in health and self-sufficiency, foraging is becoming popular once again. And with the advent of the Internet, more people are sharing their knowledge and learning from others, just as we’re doing here today!
There are so many wild edibles that can be foraged across North America, including all sorts of edible mushrooms, berries and “weeds,” but perhaps one of the easiest and most valuable plants to learn how to harvest is the humble (yet slightly intimidating) stinging nettle.
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Health benefits of stinging nettles
Stinging nettles are both highly nutritional and medicinal. They’re packed with vitamins and minerals, including vitamins A, C, B and K, iron, calcium, magnesium and potassium, among others.
Studies have shown that stinging nettles can help with everything from allergy relief and boosting immunity to joint pain and eczema. But there are many other health benefits of stinging nettles as well, some that we are only just discovering. In any case, it pays to learn how to forage and use these amazing “weeds!”
How to find and identify stinging nettles
Stinging nettles are one of the first wild edibles that you can forage for in the spring. Even if you still have some snow on the ground, stinging nettles may already be popping up (as they did here this year when we got an early spring snowfall). While they can certainly be harmful to touch, they’re rich in vitamins and minerals and can be consumed without worry when cooked or dried.
Stinging nettles grow wild across North America (and across many other continents), and can be found growing in thick, dense patches in rich, moist soils, usually along waterways like rivers, lakes, ditches and streams, or along fence lines and on the edges properties.
They tend to pop up in the early spring and grow throughout the summer, eventually reaching heights of up to 8 feet tall! They are best harvested in the spring when they are under a foot tall and when the leaves are new and tender. While they can be harvested in the summer, the leaves will be thicker and stems will be much more stringy and woody.
It’s quite easy to identify stinging nettles once you know what you’re looking for. I struggled to identify them for a couple years until I found a patch and confirmed that it was indeed a stinging nettle patch. Now that I have experience harvesting it, I know exactly what to look for (and you will too).
The plant itself has a pretty distinct shape and design. The leaves are pointed at the tips and serrated along the outer edges (like a serrated kitchen knife). The base of the leaves are sort of heart-shaped and they grow in pairs opposite one another, alternating in direction along the length of the stem.
The leaves and stems are covered in tiny hairs (which is where the sting comes from), and the stems are sort of square-shaped rather than perfectly round, and hollow in the centre.
They also grow in dense patches, which is another giveaway that you’ve found nettles and not some other look-alike.
But if you want to be 100% sure… Just touch them! If they sting, you’ve hit the jackpot 🙂 Don’t worry too much about the sting. While you wouldn’t necessarily want to fall into a patch, a bit of a sting on your hand won’t kill you. (Don’t get me wrong… It will be quite irritating for a while, but it’s not the worst thing in the world).
How to harvest stinging nettles
Due to their trademark sting, you want to take extra precautions when harvesting stinging nettles. For starters, always wear gloves, and not just thin, gardening gloves: make sure they’re thick garden or work gloves that the stinging hairs can’t penetrate. You should also wear long sleeves and pants and closed shoes rather than sandals. Basically cover up as much as possible any body parts that might come into contact with the nettles.
While some seasoned nettle foragers swear by foraging with their bare hands (there is some evidence that stings from stinging nettles can actually help to prevent and treat arthritis), I don’t recommend it. There is also evidence that consuming stinging nettles has a positive effect on arthritis, so personally I’d rather save my skin and enjoy them steeped in a cup of tea or sautéed on my plate instead:)
Once you’re all geared up with gloves, etc., harvest nettles by either cutting or pinching them off just above a set of leaves. Much like basil, nettles will produce new shoots if they are harvested just above a set of leaves. I usually harvest the top three to four sets of leaves and leave the rest of the plant as the lower leaves and stems are tougher and woodier anyway.
Place stinging nettles in a basket of paper bag (somewhere they can breathe and won’t get moldy while waiting to be cooked or dried) and head on back to your kitchen to prepare them!
How to use, prepare and preserve stinging nettles
First thing’s first: Give your stinging nettles a good wash to ensure there are no bugs, dirt or any other possible residue on them. Do this with gloves!
I pour a sink full of cold water and dunk batches of stinging nettles in the water and swish them around real good. Then I let them dry completely in the drying rack or pick off the leaves and throw them in a salad spinner to dry. From here you can either cook them up or dry them out for later use.
Stinging nettles lose their sting when they are either cooked or dried. NEVER EAT THEM RAW! You don’t want to be adding fresh stinging nettles to your salads, but a light sauté is all they need to wilt the stinging hairs and make them edible.
Cooking Stinging Nettles
If cooking nettles, steam them or sauté them in a little butter or oil like you would if you were cooking spinach, then add them to soups, pasta or rice dishes or even eat on their own with a little garlic or lemon juice.
You can also blanch them and freeze them for later us. Simply steam them for two minutes until they wilt, then dunk in ice water to stop the cooking process. Next, spin in a salad spinner or lay them on a paper towel for a few minutes to allow excess moisture to run off (I like to fold the paper towel over them and squeeze gently to release the moisture). Then pack tightly in a freezer bag, being careful to squeeze all the air out, and freeze for up to a year.
Drying Stinging Nettles
You can also dry stinging nettles to use as tea. The drying process will also cause the sting to disappear. You can either tie them in a bunch and hang upside down like you would with a bunch of herbs, or lay them out to dry, turning them regularly to ensure that no leaves mold if there is still moisture in them.
I lay mine out to dry on one of the metal shelving racks we keep in our sunroom. It’s perfect because it allows air to circulate from all sides, but I still regularly turn them and move them around to ensure air is getting to all of the nettles.
Allow stinging nettles to dry completely (about two weeks will suffice). You could also dry them out in a dehydrator if you have one to speed up the process. If drying in a dehydrator, set the dehydrator to its lowest temperature setting and set it to dry for about 12-15 hours.
Once dried, pick the leaves off of the stems (if you haven’t already) and pack in a jar or bag out of direct sunlight. It’s best to leave the leaves whole and then crumble them up to put in a teapot or tea bag when you’re ready to use them. You can preserve nutrients for longer by keeping the leaves whole.
To make tea, crumble a few leaves and steep in a looseleaf teapot, french press or put in a tea bag. Steep for about 5 minutes (longer if you prefer a more potent tea). Then discard or pour out a cup of tea and add a little honey and lemon to enhance the flavour of the tea.
What about you? Do you already use stinging nettles? Do you have any other ideas or suggestions on how to use or preserve them? What else do you forage for? Be sure to let me know in the comments section below!
Wishing you homemade, homegrown, homestead happiness 🙂
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