In my “neck of the woods” (the California foothills of the southern Sierra Nevada Mountain Range), I know spring is right around the corner when tiny nettle leaves start sprouting up through the snow. They’re easy to spot with their ridged ovate leaves and unmistakably prickly hairs that cover both the stems and leaves. Nettle (Urtica dioca, or “stinging nettle”) was the first herb I learned to identify in the wild several years ago, and is now one of my favorite herbs to find in the forest. How, at the time, was I sure I had discovered nettle? I knew it to be a very prickly, stinging plant and thought that if I were stung while trying to uproot a sprig, that would help me confirm its identification. Well, I wasn’t entirely wrong with that train of thought, but I did dearly pay for my lack of judgment over the next several hours. Talk about feeling the burn! (Side note though, if you are stung by stinging nettle, juicing a little of the nettle and putting that on your sting will relieve much of the pain. I didn’t know that at the time, but hindsight is always 20/20, right?)
Nettle is an excellent herb to wildcraft. It grows plentifully in rich, moist soil and loves partial sun and shade. I find my local wild nettle plants mostly on northern-facing slopes and riverbeds next to seasonal creeks and streams. The great thing about nettle is that not only is it a medicinal herb, but it’s also a food. Because of this, one of the best ways to “take” this herb is by adding it to everyday meals. Its high in vitamins and minerals, like vitamins A, C, E & K as well as calcium, magnesium, silica and iron, not to mention its high content of amino acids and chlorophyll. Personally, my favorite way to use nettle is in a tea infusion. It has a very “green”, chlorophyll taste to it that some describe as salty. But mixed with other nutritive herbs like red raspberry leaf, red clover and/or alfalfa is a great way to cut the taste and make the tea more palatable. I take about 1/4 cup of dried herb (either nettle only or a mixture of other nutritive herbs), pour 32oz boiling water over the herb, and steep it in a mason jar overnight, then drink at room temperature or cold throughout the next day. Right now, iced tea is my favorite since the hot summer season has reached my region of the United States. In addition to drying the leaves and using it to make hot or cold tea throughout the year, I also use fresh nettle leaves in stir fries, sautés and soups similar to how I would use spinach in a recipe. You could even make something like Chicken Florentine with nettle instead of spinach, so think outside the box and get creative!
When it comes to mineral absorption and which method of taking nettle is best and most effective, I find infusions are easiest for me personally, simply because I can “drink my minerals”. However, if you’re eating the nettle leaf, you’ll also get all that good fiber too, so it’s really up to your personal preference. Like most green herbs, the younger the leaves, the more mild the flavor (particularly if you’re eating the leaves). I like to wildcraft my nettle when it’s no more than 2-3 inches tall, though it can be wildcrafted at any time of year, preferably before it starts to flower in late summer/autumn (depending on your location). Medicinally-speaking, nettle is a drying and cooling herb with an astringent, salty taste and smell to it. It’s great for anyone looking to boost their nutrition and incorporation more anti-inflammatory foods and herbs into their diet. It’s also wonderful for pregnancy women – due to this very reason – as well as nursing mother’s since it promotes milk productions. I am pregnant right now with my first child, and love to drink my blend of half nettle / half red raspberry leaf each evening an hour or two before going to bed as a way to unwind after a long day. Very relaxing, restorative, and good for both me and baby.
Historically and up to this day, nettle has been an important plant to many native people across Eurasia as well as herbalists all over the world today, who use it for everything from a food source to a fabric (using the fibres from the stems) to a remedy for acute or chronic pain. A good example of this is relief for osteoarthritis. For those afflicted, nettle juice or a fresh leaf is places over the troublesome area. Due to nettle’s rubefacient property, using nettle for a week or more can relieve pain significantly more than if left untreated.
So you can see why nettle is now one of my favorite herbs. When I go for my hikes around the local mountains each week, I always make sure to bring some good, thick gardening gloves with me and my woven foraging backpack to put my treasures in. You never know what goodies you’ll find growing in the spring.