Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) is an edible wild plant that’s gaining in popularity with enthusiasts of the “foraging movement,” who search for it in moist woodlands and along streams and riverbanks when it first appears in early spring. If you don’t have foraging inclinations, however, you can find this leafy green at some farmers’ and specialty markets.
Traditionally consumed by Native Americans, stinging nettle has been used as a “blood purifier” and to treat a range of conditions from anemia to rheumatism. While such medical benefits have not been well studied or are unproven (see box), the plant is certainly nutritious, supplying vitamins C and K, potassium and iron, along with fiber and carotenoids. It’s a surprisingly good source of calcium, with about 430 milligrams per cup, cooked (more than a cup of milk). The flavor has been described as something like spinach or cucumber, but also a little minty.
You shouldn’t even consider eating stinging nettle raw. If you’ve ever accidentally touched the plant with bare hands, the reason is obvious: Its leaves and stems have tiny hairs that release formic acid, histamine and other irritant chemicals that cause a poison ivy-like reaction. (A bonus for the plant is that this keeps animals from munching on it.) In fact, its genus name, Urtica, comes from the Latin word ūrěre, which means “to burn”; the medical word for hives, urticaria, comes from the same root. Cooking nettle for a few minutes (or drying it) neutralizes the stingers.
If you want to forage for nettle yourself, make sure you know exactly what it looks like (wise advice if you plan to eat any wild plants you gather). The plant, which should be harvested when very young before it has flowered, has serrated heart-shaped leaves arranged in opposite pairs on square stems. In some communities where nettle grows, naturalists lead foraging trips. You’ll need to wear leather or plastic gloves to pick it. In markets, it’s often sold bagged so you don’t have to touch it directly—you can then just drop it in a pot or pan at home. Or you can use tongs to bag it yourself.
Lightly steam or sauté the young leaves as you would other greens, or add them to soups or stir-fries. Nettle works well in pesto sauce (substitute blanched nettle for basil in your favorite recipe), scrambled with eggs, mixed in rice and pasta dishes, as a pizza topping or in quiche. You can also drink tea made from fresh nettle steeped in boiling water or buy nettle tea made from the dried leaves.