If you have ever encountered stinging nettles in a field, you will never forget them. As you ramble through a field, you may all of a sudden feel a strange stinging sensation. You might think you were stung by a swarm of bees that you didn't see, but most likely you have landed in a batch of stinging nettle. If you touch or brush against stinging nettles you will know immediately this plant is well defended. There are stinging hairs on the leaves and stem of this plant. The sting is a localized irritant. But don't run away, as this plant is worth gathering. Nettles are a mineral supply depot. Nettles have human usable forms of iron, calcium, potassium, magnesium, and Vitamins A, C, and D. The stinging capacity disappears when the plant dries or is cooked. The leaves dry easily and store well, but do keep them out of the sun as they lose color easily.
Of course the first step to eating any wild edible is making sure you have properly identified the plant. Stinging nettle is a great plant to start with particularly if you are overwhelmed by the identification process. So if you discover a plant with leaves that are opposite, a slightly heart-shaped base, and a toothed leaf margin, and when you touch it you feel the sting, you can be assured that you have found a nettle. It is wonderful to have the sting to help know without a doubt you have the right plant.
Always harvest the leaves before the plant flowers. After they flower, the leaves contain such a high concentration of minerals it can be hard on your kidneys to process. Most nettle patches will have new growth late in the season so you can collect leaves in the spring and in the fall.
Nettle greens are very good in soups and any recipe the same way you might use spinach greens. As a tea it is a year round tonic. It helps clear excess uric acid from the body which is a blessing for those who have gout or arthritis. It also is for people who get leg cramps from too much walking, running, or from humid summer days. Nettles also work well for internal bleeding, nosebleeds, uterine bleeding, even for hemorrhoids. Nettle tea is a blood builder. It stimulates white blood cells, aids coagulation and promotes red blood cell production. It is an excellent medicinal for people with anemia. It can also be used as a tea throughout hay fever season to reduce the severity of chronic, seasonal allergy symptoms.
Nettles are perennial and they grow up to four feet tall. Nettles are also an important source used to make cordage for weaving, nets, bowstrings, or whatever survival needs arise. A yellow dye can be extracted from the roots. Do not wash the herb before drying it or it will almost certainly spoil. When the leaves and stems are crispy dry, store them in an airtight container, preferably glass. Be sure to wear gloves when you pick the plant.
Here is a Nettle soup recipe to try:
Combine in a medium saucepan:
• 5 cups chicken or vegetable broth
• 3 cups young nettle tops (washed and chopped into 1" pieces)
Boil 10 minutes. For a smooth soup, force the cooked nettles through a sieve or food mill or blend 1 minute in a blender. Return nettles and liquid to the saucepan and add:
• 3 tablespoons heavy cream or milk
• 1 tablespoon butter
• ½ teaspoon salt
• pinch of black pepper, freshly ground.
Simmer briefly and serve.