Stinging Nettles

Stinging Nettles

If you’ve ever walked in the Vermont woods in the early spring, you have probably come across stinging nettles. If you were fortunate enough to have been wearing long pants, you probably never noticed them. When stinging nettles contact the skin they  cause stinging irritation.

Nettles come in many varieties, the most common of which is Urtica dioica. They are found in the United States, Canada and Europe.2nettles


Their colors vary from bright green to dark green and some have a lavender color on the under side of the leaf. The stems are covered with tiny hair-like needles which are impregnated with a toxin that causes irritation.


Nettles are nutrient dense and contain both iron and Vitamin C. They also have one of the highest protein levels found in leafy greens.

Nettles can be used in soups, made into pesto or used in any recipe that makes use of spinach. When harvested for consumption, make use only of the leaves and pick in the  spring before the nettle flowers. If you pick nettles too late in the season, eating them can cause damage to your kidneys.

It is important to boil nettles with a little bit of salt for 2-3 minutes to remove their stinging qualities. Remove as much water as possible and then the nettles can be frozen for later use. We use a salad spinner to remove excess water. The recipe below is adapted from Lisa Mase in the Edible Green Mountains Spring 2012 edition. Edible Green Mountains is a wonderful resource and is available in print form, online and as an app which offers Edible magazines from all over the country. We highly recommend subscribing for great recipe ideas and local food information.

1/2 lb nettles

1/2 cup olive oil

1/4 cup lemon juice

1/2 cup sunflower seeds

1/4 teaspoon salt

place all ingredients in a food processor and process until paste like

Add 1/4 cup hemp seed and serve over pasta, chicken or on pieces of white baguette with a glass of white wine. Check online for cream of nettle soup recipes.

The stinging nettles are up and ready to be harvested.   It is best to harvest nettles wearing rubber or surgical gloves to protect your hands while you remove the leaves. Once the plant begins to flower, the time for harvest is over. When beginning to forage, always take with you someone well versed in plant identification. There are many innocent looking plants in the woods and along our roadsides that can cause illness and worse. 


Nettles have a texture like steamed baby spinach and a taste that is milder than spinach. It is one of the highest protein greens.

Although formic acid is present in the sting, recent research has shown that histamine, acetylcholine and 5-hydroxytryptamine (serotonin) are also present in the plant toxin.

Whenever learning about a new forage plant, I like to research the folklore associated with the plant. Below are two examples featuring stinging nettles. Learning how to grasp the nettle lessens the chances of getting the sting.

THE BOY AND THE NETTLE- An Aesop’s fable:

A Boy, stung by a Nettle, ran home crying, to get his mother to blow on the hurt and kiss it.

“Son,” said the Boy’s mother, when she had comforted him, “the next time you come near a Nettle, grasp it firmly, and it will be as soft as silk.”

Whatever you do, do with all your might.

A well-known English rhyme about the stinging nettle is:

Tender-handed, stroke a nettle,
And it stings you for your pains.
Grasp it like a man of mettle,
And it soft as silk remains.

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