by Leda Meredith
Ouch! You just accidentally brushed up against some nettles and now your skin is stinging. Well, at least you’ve confirmed your plant identification.
Stinging nettles (Urtica species) deserve their name. Fortunately, once dried or cooked the sting disappears and they become one of the best edible greens you can eat. Best in terms of flavor and texture, but also in terms of nutritional value.
And we’re talking about a lot of nutritional value. Nettles are packed with minerals and vitamins, and are 10% protein. They are a highly prized herbal medicine as well as a food, with a deserved reputation as one of the best overall tonics for your health. If taken for several weeks before the hayfever season begins (as an infusion of the dried leaves, or in tincture or capsule form), they prevent seasonal allergy symptoms in most people.
How to ID
Nettles have opposite (paired) leaves and hollow stems. The leaves are toothed along the margins, and some people think they look like mint leaves. The whole plant is covered in hairs, which are filled with the compounds that create the stinging effect. The plants have a purplish tint when they emerge in early spring, turning greener as the season progresses.
Wood nettle (Laportea canadensis) has fewer hairs, and its leaves are alternate rather than opposite. It, too, is an excellent edible.
Still not sure you’ve got the right plant? Brush one with the inside of your wrist. You’ll know. FYI, the sting goes away fairly quickly. If there’s some yellow dock (Rumex crispus) or jewelweed (Impatiens species) growing nearby, rub some on for a traditional cure for nettles’ sting.
How to Pick Nettles Without Getting Stung
The short answer is: wear gloves. But realistically, you may not have gloves with you when you find a patch of nettles. It is possible to pick them barehanded without getting stung.
The hairs on the plants, which is where the sting factor is, face upward towards the top of the plants. This means that if you grab them with a downward motion, you will get stung. Not good. But if you carefully grasp them from the bottom with an upward motion you flatten the hairs and escape the sting factor.
I consider this a concentration challenge. If I pay attention, I can collect a big haul of this delicious food barehanded. But if my mind wanders and I forget the above instructions, I get an immediate, tactile reprimand for my mental lapse.
When to Harvest
Harvest nettles when they are not more than 2 feet high, before the female plants flower (nettles are dioecious, meaning there are separate male and female plants). They usually flower once temperatures warm up in late spring, but with the balmy weather we’ve been having, all bets are off on when that will be this year.
The flowers are pretty inconspicuous, so look closely. They are like little green necklaces dangling from the leaf axils (where the leaves join the stems).
You can eat both the male and the female plants.
I haven’t found a lot of nettles in Brooklyn’s parks. Where I see plenty of them is in peoples backyards (yes, even partially shaded brownstone gardens) and community gardens. Volunteer to do some weeding for a community garden, or check your own backyard to see if you already have this wonderful plant.
I’ve also seen them for sale at the Greenmarkets and at the Park Slope Food Coop.
I dry a lot of nettles because it is one of my favorite teas, but I think my favorite way to enjoy this ingredient is in the Irish (or some say Scottish) dish, Champ.
Champ (Mashed Potatoes with Nettles)
Serves 4 as a side dish
Champ is like the Irish dish colcannon, except that it uses nettles instead of cabbage.
- 1 1/2 pounds Yukon Gold or Russet potatoes
- 1 large bunch of fresh nettes
- 1 cup milk
- 1 bunch of scallions, white and green parts, chopped
- 1 – 2 Tablespoons butter
- Dash of freshly ground nutmeg
- Salt to taste
Peel the potatoes and cut into 1 inch chunks. Steam until very soft.
Meanwhile, wash the nettles and strip the leaves and tips from the stems (okay, you might want to wear gloves for this part. I don’t, but it’s an option). If the stems are tough, chop them up and compost them (nettles have a reputation for being a terrific compost activator).
Boil the leaves and any tender stems in a little bit of water for 7 minutes. Drain in a colander and immediately rinse under cool water to stop the cooking process. Squeeze out as much water as possible. Coarsely chop.
Simmer the milk, scallions, and butter together in a small saucepan for 5 – 10 minutes until the scallions are soft.
Mash the potatoes together with the other ingredients, adding salt to taste.