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Ah, nettles. Stinging nettles, Utica dioica, are some of my very favorite wild greens to harvest. Not only do they make for delicious and nourishing foodstuffs, they have long been used as a powerful herbal medicine. Not to mention that they grow all over the globe (native to Asia, Europe, Northern Africa, North America, and introduced elsewhere) and where they do growing they are often out in massive populations, making it difficult to over harvest.
As a food, nettles must be cooked, crushed, or dried before consuming in order to destroy the stinging hairs and the chemicals they contain. It is very easy to get rid of this painful effect by simply boiling water and dunking the raw nettles (leafs and stems are edible) for 90 seconds. At this point they are ready to eat as cooked greens. Although, they are excellent used like spinach or kale in many dishes, such as pesto, quiche, or soup. Nutritionally, nettles excel above many other greens. They are very high in vitamins A, B-6, K, and C, potassium, iron, magnesium, and calcium. In fact, a cup of cooked nettles contains 43% of daily recommendations for calcium. They are also extremely high in protein for a green, containing as much as 25% protein dry weight.
Nettles have been used medicinally around the globe for thousands of years. The roots, seeds, and leaves are used, but I have found the the leaves are the most commonly used, especially in the form or tea. This herb is used to treat a wide variety of ailments including hay fever, Alzheimer's, asthma, arthritis, bladder infections and UTI's, kidney stones, bronchitis, gingivitis, gout, prostate enlargement, and many, many more. It is often used for it diuretic, astringent, and anti-inflammatory properties. Nettles is known as a women's herb and is used by many pregnant women to stay strong and healthy and to ease childbirth.
On top of being an excellent food source and medicinal herb, nettles are useful for many other things. It makes for an excellent fiber and was traditionally woven into cloth and made into cordage. It is also high in nitrogen, so it can be made into a tea with which to fertilize plants with. Farmers have traditionally fed it to chickens to increase egg production and enhance the yellow color of the yolk. It has also been fed to cows to increase milk production.
Nettles like to grow in moist, rich soil and because of this are often found around stream banks, compost piles, and the such. They prefer full sun, but do fine without it and often grow in disturbed areas without dense tree cover. It is best to harvest them for food or medicine in the spring and early summer when they are less than a foot or two tall at the very most. Any taller than this and they become tough and stringy to eat. Larger plants that are flowering or have already gone to seed also contain small, gritty particles called cystoliths, which can irritate the urinary tract. For cordage, though, older plants are preferred as the fibers are more developed.
Each nettle harvester has their own method to avoid the plant's painful sting. Nettle's have small hairs on the underside of their leaves as well as on the stem. Some harvesters prefer what I call the astronaut method, in which they cover themselves head to toe, wearing long pants and shirts and gloves, making sure there isn't any skin exposed to be stung. Some prefer to use scissors and others a gloved hand, and some even use a large leaf to grab the nettles. Some hardcore harvesters don't bother with any of this and simply amble into the nettle patch in shorts and sandals and pick them with their bare hands. I don't like to monkey around too much so this is the method I tend to use, unless I'm really in a hurry. You do have to go a bit slower to avoid being stung with this method.
To attempt this, all you have to do is remember which direction the hairs are going. They tend to point up on the stem so if you come in from the bottom of the plant and pull upwards, pinching the plant off firmly above the first leaves you shouldn't have a problem. Do not touch the underside of the leaves. If you only want to harvest the leaves you can do that as well, just remember to only touch the top of the leaf. Be very careful not to pull the plants roots out (this an be hard if you fumble around with gloves) and always pick it above the bottom leaves, leaving some of the plant to regrow. As always, remember to follow good wild harvesting methods and only take what you need, leaving 20 plants for every one you harvest so that they can continue to reproduce.
If you do wear sandals and shorts, always pay attention to where your feet are. I find that you will always get stung a couple of times no matter what you do, so just let it happen. I always feel good after the stinging goes away, like it increased my circulation. In fact, some people used to touch nettles on purpose to increase circulation, reduce inflammation and reduce pain in the joints. If you do get stung, just pick some jewelweed (it usually grows close by), chew it up, and put it on the sting, it will get rid of the pain immediately. For more information on jewelweed click here.
Once you've collected a good bit (remember that they cook down a lot, like spinach), you will have to process them to destroy the stinging hairs. There are three different ways to do so: crush it, cook it, or dry it. If you are in a survival situation and have no way of cooking them, it is possible to eat them raw. To do so, take an individual leaf and fold it over on itself with the hairy side in 3-5 times until it is just a small square. Crush it up with your fingers until it turns a darker green color. Then you should be able to just eat it.
The other way to eat them raw is the crush them up with either a mortar and pestle or a food processor. I love to make nettle pesto this way as it is a great way to keep all of the nutrients.
To cook the nettles, bring water to a boil and dunk the nettles in for 90 seconds. This destroys the stinging pretty quickly and you can even use the water for something else. Sometimes, like in my Springtime Fried Rice Soup recipe, I will just put nettles in a bowl and pour hot soup over it.
To dry, you can simply put individual leaves in a food dehydrator or hang small bundles in a dry place. Having dried nettles on hand is great because you can use it for tea, chicken feed, or even add it to flour to make it extra high in protein, vitamins, and minerals. I like to add it to the dough when making homemade egg noodles or tortillas.