Stinging Nettle: How To Identify, Harvest, and Eat

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Stinging Nettle Identification

Learn stinging nettle identification quickly and easily. We show you how to identify, harvest, and prepare this vitamin-packed wild edible.

I’ll never forget the time I found out Matt was eating entire meals of wild edible plants. He would head out for a walk and return stating that he was “full” and didn’t need to eat dinner. How was he finding enough to eat in the wilderness to completely replace a meal?

Simple. All it takes is a bit of knowledge in identifying and harvesting, some attention to detail, and a little patience while looking.

It’s unbelievable how much food you can collect from the wild!

In our modern society, it is common to run to the grocery store for food. So foraging for wild edibles has become a novelty instead of a necessity. Our ancestors not only knew how to identify wild plants that were edible, but they also wisely used this free bounty of nature.

Now that we’re both learning more about edible wild plants, we have had several meals and snacks made up of weeds, plants, berries, and vegetables we harvested while out walking. (And no, we didn’t have to steal them from anyone’s yard!)

Recently we had a beautiful salad with chickweed and dock, embellished with some of our favorite salad toppings. But one of our new spring favorites is sautéed stinging nettles with pasta or veggies.

Stinging Nettle 1

Stinging Nettle Identification, Why Bother?

Stinging nettle definitely lives up to its name – it will sting like crazy if you brush up against it or handle the plants without wearing gloves. But this nuisance of a plant is highly nutritious and readily available in most areas, making it one of the perfect wild plants to consume.

When cooked or dried, nettles completely lose their stinging properties, making them perfectly safe for consumption. You can steam, sauté, or boil them and enjoy with a meal or in soups. You can also make a wonderful tea with the leaves, sweetening with honey and lemon. Use them in any dish you would normally use spinach. They have an earthy, wholesome flavor that you’re sure to enjoy if you enjoy other greens.

Stinging nettles are also packed with nutrients. They are high in Vitamin C, Vitamin A, and full of calcium, magnesium, iron, and potassium. Nettles are also a wonderful source of protein. Seriously!

Stinging Nettle Identification and Harvest

Stinging Nettle identification of this bountiful wild edible is quick and easy. Learn how to identify, harvest, prepare, and eat this vitamin-packed powerhouse!

Identifying Nettles

Nettles will begin popping up in early spring and can be found all across North America. Its proper habitat is in sunny places where there is rich, moist soil. You’ll find them growing along rivers, streams, lakes, ditches, fencerows, and on the edges of cultivated farm fields. When Matt and I walk beside one of the nearby rivers, we always notice it growing abundantly as a “weed.”

Stinging nettle will grow in dense clusters, and stalks can reach 5-8 feet at maturity. Leaves are about 2-5 inches long with jagged edges, found in opposing pairs along the upper half of the stalk.  Leaves are pointed at the tips, with a heart-shaped base and indented veins. The plant will have small “hairs” up the stalk and stems. (This is where the sting comes from!)

Young plants will have smaller, heart-shaped leaves with a purple hue, while mature plants have long, pointed leaves that appear very green. (For more pictures, click here.)

Stinging Nettle 2

Harvesting Nettles

The best time to harvest nettles is the first few weeks after they come up in the spring before they grow to be a foot tall. Wearing gloves, pick the first two or three pairs of leaves from the tops of plants. Carefully place nettles into a paper or plastic bag for transport. Nettles can still be harvested into summer, but keep in mind the top few pairs of leaves will be most tender, and stalks and stems will be very fibrous.

Now that you know stinging nettle identification, you’re ready to use your nettles. Use kitchen tongs to remove them from the bag and place them in a colander to rinse well. To avoid stinging, continue using tongs as you transfer your nettles from the sink to the stove.

Sautéed Nettles With Onions and Pasta

(Makes 2-3 servings)

Stinging Nettle 3

Ingredients

  • 8 cups stinging nettles, rinsed well and chopped into smaller pieces if desired (use tongs while rinsing and dealing with nettles)
  • ½ cup spring onions or ramps, sliced
  • 2 Tbsp butter, preferably pastured
  • 2 Tbsp other fat, like bacon grease, coconut oil, lard, etc. (we like bacon grease) – (find coconut oil and other healthy fats here)
  • ½ cup cooked ham, cubed (optional)
  • 1 cup noodles, uncooked (find organic noodles here)
  • sea salt and fresh cracked pepper to taste
  • freshly grated parmesan

Instructions

Know that you know stinging nettle identification, let’s eat them! Boil water and cook noodles. Strain noodles, add a little olive oil to prevent sticking and set aside. Melt fats in a large skillet on medium heat. Add spring onions and sauté for a few minutes. Using tongs, carefully add nettles to the skillet and toss in fat and garlic until cooked down. Add optional cubed ham and toss until warm. Add noodles and gently toss all ingredients together to combine. Season with salt and fresh cracked pepper to taste. Garnish with freshly grated parmesan and enjoy!

Stinging Nettle 4

Eat Your Nettles!

We eat this as a complete meal, but it can also be served as a side dish.

Spring is the perfect time to brush up on your stinging nettle identification skills, so start foraging and take advantage of this natural free food source!

Are you familiar with stinging nettle identification? What else can you share for people to learn?

We highly recommend these books if you have an interest in learning more about edible wild plants:

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About Betsy Jabs

Betsy holds a bachelor's degree in Psychology and a Master's degree in Counseling, and for nearly a decade worked as an elementary counselor. In 2011 she left her counseling career to pursue healthy living. She loves using DIY Natural as a way to educate people to depend on themselves to nourish their bodies and live happier healthier lives. Connect with Betsy on Facebookand Twitter.

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Comments

  1. Heather Levin says

    We purposefully grow stinging nettle in our garden in order to harvest its leaves for food and tea. Nettle also has many medicinal applications as well.

    Drinking nettle (as a tea) can help relieve seasonal allergies. I harvest and dry our nettle leaves all summer to help with my fall allergies. The flavor is delicious and unique, like dried hay. Add a bit of honey to enhance the flavor.

    Nettle is also a powerful anti-inflammatory, and it might provide relief for some people with arthritis. The best way to use nettle for this purpose is to brush the affected area against nettle leaves and purposefully sting yourself. The pain is short lived, and feels like a bee sting. However, you might find that the next day your pain is not as severe, or is gone entirely. An herbalist and RN I studied under used nettle for arthritis in her hand. She said the nettle would keep her symptoms at bay for 2 to 3 weeks; when they returned she would simply sting herself with nettle again.

  2. Mary E says

    As was mentioned in your blog stinging nettle grows along rivers, streams, lakes, etc. None of which we have here in southeastern NM. I have something that is exactly what you described in my yard. Is it possible that it also grows in arid countryside? Granted, there aren’t very large quantities because we thought it was a weed. Could it possibly be some other plant? I would like to harvest it if it truly is stinging nettle.

    • Matt Jabs says

      Hi Mary. I would use an identification guide before consuming. You can also check out the iNaturalist app for your phone. Blessings.

  3. Constance Lapujade says

    How long do the nettles need to cook until they are safe or won’t get sting? Please..

  4. Natalie says

    We have an abundance of stinging nettles here in the UK. I have lots in my garden. But i’m worried that cats might have sprayed on them. There are a lot of cats in my area!

  5. Davi Parker says

    What does it taste like? Is it similar to spinach or is there some other green it is similar in taste to?

  6. Gary D says

    I purchased some mint and nettle tea at a farmer’s market – nettle tea supposedly is a general health tonic and to help treat high blood pressure, anemia, asthma, allergies such as hay fever and allergic rhinitis, benign prostatic hyperplasia, cancer, diabetes, goiter, kidney problems and malabsorption syndrome. People also drink nettle tea to treat inflammatory disorders such as urinary tract inflammation, rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis. It is a strong diuretic, drink plenty of water with it. Research shows evidence that nettle tea is useful in treating cough and cold, intestinal disorders, high blood pressure and joint pain. Nettle acts an an anti-inflammatory for allergic skin reactions.
    The University of Maryland recommends drinking 3 to 4 cups of nettle tea each day to treat such conditions as osteoarthritis, hay fever and benign prostatic hyperplasia.

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  8. Camille says

    My mother used to make risotto with stinging nettles. Unfortunately I do not have the recipe. Anyone ever tried it?

    • Betsy Jabs says

      Yum, that sounds delicious. You could probably make a version by just carefully chopping fresh nettles and steaming them, then adding to risotto with spices and anything else you want in the dish. Thanks for the idea! 🙂

  9. stacy whalen says

    Thanks for this recipe. I dry my nettles for tea but am always looking for ways to actually eat it.

  10. Kim says

    Thank you so much for a hugely informative post! I’ve been looking for nettles for years and have yet to find them. I’ve actually scattered seeds in a marshy spot out back hoping… I enjoy nettle tea and infusions, though. Look forward to finding a fresh plant to try some of your recipes. Thanks again! 🙂

  11. Meari says

    I’ve never tried fresh nettle, but I’ve had nettle tea and it’s the nastiest thing ever! Like drinking dried weeds.

      • Meari says

        I did add honey but it didn’t help. To give it a fair chance, I tried the tea a few different times. I just couldn’t get past the dried weed taste.

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  13. jessica Ibarguen says

    yay! thanks. I have some stinging nettle on my property. I’d heard it is edible but hadn’t taken the time to look up how to prepare it. Thanks