Sunday, April 15, 2018

NETTLES: all about this valuable herb


An excellent food, medicine, and fibre source

[Nyerges is the author of “Guide to Wild Foods,” “How to Survive Anywhere,” “Foraging California” and others.  He has led Wild Food Outings since 1974, and he lectures and writes on natural sciences and ethno-botany widely. His website is, or he can be reached at School of Self-Reliance, Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041]

This year, our rains came late, and many of the early spring natives and exotics hardly grew up at all. There was an abundance of chickweed, various mustards, mallow, and nettles this year, all non-natives and all very nutritious.

At one of my hiking spots, I noticed last week that there were contract city workers around our parks with their weed whackers beginning their annual decimation of the useful foods and herbs that have sustained millennia of people, just for the picking.  This is part of our culture’s current schitzophrenia – we talk “green” and how we want to be healthy and save ourselves and save the earth, yet, the very plants that can save us are weed-whacked, sprayed with Roundup, and tossed into the trashcans.  I can’t change the world, but I did tell my friends to collect all the herbs they are able to get before they are all cut down. 
city workers weed-whacking chickweed and nettle

Of course, I understand the other side – city officials don’t want nettles growing around parks where children might sting themselves.  Never mind that the sting can actually be a benefit to offset future arthritis --- the city doesn’t want the liability.  So, at this time of the year, vast acreages of nettles and other useful wild plants are cut down and unceremoniously poisoned and killed. Did I also mention that these very plants can be purchased in decorative boxes in the herb section of Whole Foods and other such markets?

This year, I have collected large volumes of chickweed, mallow, hedge mustard, and nettle.  Most of it I dry.  I used the powdered chickweed in an insect repellent, the mallow for a mild cough remedy, and the hedge mustard makes a spicey powder to add to other dishes.  But the nettle is the one that I can never get enough of.
nettle in the field
washing the nettle
drying racks

some chickweed too!

Often during this time of the year, I get an allergic reaction when I’ve been under and around the trees that produces lots of pollen and cottony-fluff, like willows, and cottonwoods, and cattail, and oak.  I’ve tried numerous remedies over the  years to combat the allergy, but all with limited success. It just won’t work to stay out of the woods.

Here are some of the many ways I used the nettle greens:   I make an infusion of the nettle leaves (dried or fresh) for allergy, and I drink it pretty regularly in the evenings.  It has helped to relieve congestion and improve my ability to breathe.  It seems to work even better than my old standby, Mormon tea.

I also add the fresh, dried, or frozen nettle greens into my evening soup.   The soup is  enjoyable and tasty.  In fact, nettle is one of the tastiest wild greens out there, and widely under-rated.

Sometimes I just cook nettle greens like spinach, and I even drink the water because it is so flavorful. I add it to various soups and stews, egg dishes and omelettes, and even burritos.

Sometimes, if I want a quick meal, I’ll make a package of ramen noodles, and add lots of nettle and onion greens.  I’ve also added the dried or fresh leaves of nettle to spaghetti sauce.  Powdered, I’ve added nettles to pancake batter to increase the protein content and improve the flavor or the pancakes.  I’ve not yet tried making pasta with nettles, but a friend of mine routinely dries and powders various wild greens, mixes it 50/50 with flour, and runs it through a pasta machine to make some unique pastas.

Years ago, I would periodically meet people who survived the hardships of World War II, and among other things, they spoke of how nettles saved their lives.  Usually, they would say that nettles and cattails, two widespread common plants, had enabled them to make meals. Until recently, I thought they were exaggerating because I hadn’t been aware of the versatility of nettles, and how it’s really a nutritional powerhouse.



Stinging nettle (Urtica dioeca) is a fairly common plant throughout most of North America, as well most of the rest of the world.  It is one of the plants that you always see on the charts of “noxious weeds” published by companies such as Ortho and others, letting you know that their product will effectively wipe out these “worthless plants” in your gardens.

The reason why so many people dislike stinging nettles is because when you brush up against it, you break off the tips of tiny hollow needles that are filled with formic acid, and you get a stinging reaction. This reaction is short-lived, and can be remedied by rubbing the skin  with chickweed or curly dock, or even wild grasses.

Nutritionally, nettles is a good source of Vitamin C and A.  According to the USDA’s Composition of Foods, 100 grams of nettle contains 6,500 I.U. of Vitamin A, and 76 mg. of Vitamin C.  This amount contains 481 mg. of calcium, 71 mg. of phosphorus, and 334 mg. of potassium. This amount also contains 5.5 grams of protein, a lot for greens, though not complete protein.

Herbalist Michael Moore, author of Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West, describes nettles as a diuretic and astringent, and he advices the tea for use in cases of internal bleeding. 

In general, nettles are found growing in the wild near streams, in moist soil, in rich soil, and often near raspberries and blackberry vines.  And in the urban areas, it seems to grow everywhere: along roads, in fields, backyards, gardens, and at the Highland Park Farmers Market, I’ve found it growing in the cracks of the sidewalk.

If you cannot yet recognize the wild nettle plant, most gardeners or landscapers should be able to show you one. Or go to a nursery, where nettles are often growing in their pots and soil.  

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