Foraging for Nettles

(Urtica Dioica)

No more than five minutes’ walk from where you are sitting you’ll be able to find nettles. They are particularly abundant in verges and hedgerows in early springtime, are really easy to identify and of course, free to pick. Once relegated to often traumatic childhood memories, this wild superfood has had quite the makeover over recent years.
Spring, Summer, Autumn, Wild Greens
Foraging for Nettles

How to Identify

We’d always recommend donning a pair of gloves when picking and processing, and be sure to wash anything you forage before eating.

 

Leaves

  • Nettles grow up to 5 feet tall and have opposing green leaves.
  • The leaves are coarsely toothed, oval, pointed on the ends, and can be several inches long.
  • The leaves are covered in fine hairs that break easily on contact, releasing formic acid which irritates our skin.

 

Seeds

  • When they go to flower, all the energy and goodness goes into producing the flower and seeds, and the leaves go all tough and stringy.
  • Nettle seeds grow in tiny geometric clusters on long stems. We would generally recommend picking from the top ⅓ of the plant, where the seeds and nutrients are most abundant.
  • As the plant is dioecious, only half the plants will carry the seeds (the female). The male plants produce pollen to fertilise the female, which in turn produces the seeds. The female plants are distinguished by their slightly frosty appearance and droopiness of the flowers.
  • You know the seeds are ready to pick when the long seed bundles droop towards the stem.
Foraging for Nettles

When and Where

Nettles grow abundantly throughout the UK, and are easily recognisable – just don’t forget to use thick gloves!

 

Nettles thrive in areas with a good amount of rainfall and in moist soil, commonly found in the countryside, on the edges of woodlands, verges and at the bottom of the garden!

 

Young leaves appear as early as late February/early March, and will continue to grow until the end of Autumn. When using the leaves, always be sure to pick from young plants that haven’t yet flowered. At the first sign of nettles flowering and going to seed, you should stop picking the leaves – the plant starts to produce microscopic rods of calcium carbonate, which when absorbed into the body can interfere with our kidney function.  Older leaves will also be more bitter and less palatable due to being a little tough/stringy. 

 

You’ll find new growth appearing all throughout the year, especially if plants have been cut back.

 

Nettle seeds will be ready to harvest from August to mid-Autumn.

 

Flavour and How to Use

Yes, they may be bristly and undeniably stingy – but once they’ve been blanched in boiling water the sting is removed and they’re a delicious green with a spinach-like flavour that are particularly rich in vitamin C and iron. 

 

Cooking nettles breaks down the formic acid and renders the plant safe to eat. If you’re feeling brave, you can eat them raw if pounded in a mortar and pestle!

 

Nettles are incredibly versatile – with the leaf flavour a combination of spinach and mild cabbage.

 

The simplest way to enjoy nettles are in a tea infusion. Choose the young tender leaves, wash them, pop them in a teapot and cover with boiling water. Steep for 6-8 minutes, then remove the nettles. Add sweetener of your choice and/or a fresh lemon for extra zing.

 

Here are a few more ideas on how to use nettle leaves:

 

The seeds have a great earthy, nutty flavour, and can be consumed fresh or dried (although said to be less nutrient dense when dried), used just like a small seed such as poppy or sesame seeds. 

Nettle Tea
Foraging for Nettles
Nettle Seeds

Medicinal Properties

Nettle leaves are rich in vitamins A and C, as well as iron, protein and other minerals. A nettle tea infusion is great to help cleanse the system and is said to alleviate hayfever and skin allergies.  Helping to increase our red blood cell count, consuming Nettles can also aid circulation

 

Nettle seeds are great as a tonic, as the seeds contain serotonin – a teaspoon every morning is great for a pick-me-up! Containing fatty acids and Omega 3 oils, the seeds have also long been used by herbalists to support kidney and adrenal functions.

History and Folklore

Packed with nutrients, nettles were an important food source during WW2 and the great potato famine.

 

They also contain strong fibres, humans have been using nettles to make rope and fabric for centuries (you may have seen it used to wrap the delicious cheese Cornish Yarg!).

 

Did you know that nettles are often used as a green colouring, for example they used to be used to colour green Haribo sweets!

 

Horse salesmen used to feed nettle seeds to horses for a few weeks prior to a big sale, as it would not only give them a glossy mane, but also a youthful, energetic character.

Things to Note

The fresh, young growth in Spring really is the crop to go for. We’d recommend only picking the top tips – the first four or six leaves on each spear – and you will get the very best of the plant. You really should not eat them once they begin to form flowers – as they’ll start to produce a substance that can interfere with kidney function – but is of great benefit to butterflies and moths!

 

If you ever pull up nettle roots, you’ll notice they are yellow and are often used as a natural die.

 

Nettles will be their stingiest when they are young. Always pick wearing sturdy gloves to avoid getting stung! 

Possible Confusions

Lookalikes include dead nettles and yellow archangels, but both are edible.  Dead nettles don’t sting, and are actually part of a different plant family – mint.

Dead Nettles
Yellow Archangels

Foraging at our Cookery Courses

All of our Cookery Courses include a short foraging walk as part of the day, introducing you to a handful of commonly found wild ingredients.

Keen to learn more?

There are a wide range of resources on foraging. Here are just a handful of our favourite books.

Our Foraging Tips

Ask permission. 

Essential if you’re picking on private land. As with everything, respect is key and goes a long way.

 

If in doubt, leave it out. 

Why rush? Nature isn’t going anywhere! Take time to ensure you safely identify your finds.

 

One step at a time.

No one becomes an expert overnight. Build up your identification skills and your confidence will grow. 

 

Enjoy the process.

Foraging is not only about what you pick but the experience – Immerse yourself in nature and appreciate the little things. The fresh air, birds chirping, a light breeze or the feel of soil beneath your feet.

 

Celebrate locality.

With an abundance of forage at your doorstep, why not start local?

 

The 10% rule.

Only take what you need (or 10% of what is available). This not only means that you leave plenty for other foragers, but also local wildlife. We want to enjoy our ecosystem not damage it. 

 

Leave room for regrowth.

Never uproot a plant so that it is always able to regrow after you have foraged from it.

 

Wash before consumption.

Always give your foraging finds a good wash before consuming, especially when picking on busy routes/path.