Harvesting nettles in spring has such a “turning of the seasons” quality to it. The best time to gather is early spring, when the earth is bursting with new growth, trees are budding, and the verdant foliage is dewy and alive.
The benefits of nettles (Urtica dioica and Urtica urens) are many, particularly for detoxifying the body. Nettle leaf is a diuretic and strengthens the mucous membrane of the digestive, urinary, and respiratory systems. Nettles reduce blood pressure, increase the excretion of salt, and help prevent the build up of uric acid in joints, alleviating cases of gout, rheumatism, and arthritis. Nettle root has been used for prostate issues in men, though the root has even better results for the latter.
High in Vitamin A, Vitamin C, iron, magnesium, calcium, potassium, and protein, nettles are great for nails and hair, and can be used to stimulate the adrenals. Nettles can be used in any recipes that require a leafy green to be sauteed or boiled, ridding the nettles of their stinging qualities.
Used topically, nettles can be used in compresses or salves to alleviate joint pain, sprains, tendonitis, or insect bites. It can also be used as a tonic, shown to benefit excema when applied directly to the skin. Nettles help alleviate symptoms of hay fever (allergic rhinitis) by the reducing the body’s histamine production in response to allergens. Although most general readers won’t have the capability to freeze dry nettles, it is worth noting that a human study regarding hay fever found that taking stinging nettle supplements daily (beginning two-three weeks before hay fever season began), had comparable or more effective results than taking prescription allergy medicine.
Nettles, as with anything, should be harvested in an area free of pollution, and at least 50-100 yards from public roads that may cover the plants with auto exhaust residue. Areas around agricultural businesses, parking lots, public parks, and fertilized lawns are also potentially laden with herbicides or pesticides. Where we live, we have DNR land (Department of Natural Resources) right out our back door, where harvesting for personal use is free in the state of Washington (check your state’s State Forest rules and regulations), and harvesting non-commercially for edible non-marine plants and mushrooms is also allowed without a permit. National Forests vary in their regulations, and should be checked locally. For instance, in Washington State, Gifford Pinchot National forest does not require a permit for up to three gallons of berries, while a free-use permit must be acquired to gather greens, mushrooms, or cones, while Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest requires permits for all of the aforementioned, Olympic National Forest does not require a permit for mushroom foraging, and the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area prohibits foraging altogether. The National Parks (including Mt. Rainier), allow for the gathering of between one quart and one gallon of edible fruits, nuts, berries, and mushrooms per day, though North Cascades National Park prohibits mushroom foraging. This is a great resource for the Pacific Northwest with a brief rundown on rules for foraging on both state and national lands. In short, check locally before harvesting, but once you find your spot, you’ll have it all figured out for future expeditions.
As a rule, don’t harvest from the very first plants of a species to show themselves in an area. As pioneer plants, these should be left to grow and proliferate. Look for healthy community of plants to gather from, and gather from the more central portions of the plant, so that plants growing on the edge can continue to grow outward. Remove no more than ten percent of a native plant community in a single stand, and be mindful of only collecting what you need.
Nettles can be found in rich, moist soil, where there is also an abundance of sun. Their stalks are straight and sturdy, with heart shaped leaves that are toothed, and finely tapered. The entire plant is covered with fine hairs that release chemicals when touched (giving the nettles their commonly referenced moniker “Stinging Nettles”) that are concentrated mostly on the underside of the leaves and stem, but become inactive once cooked or dried. Nettles grow in clusters, can reach over two meters in height, and often grow with mint in close proximity.
The best time for gathering is in early spring, when nettles are newly sprung from the ground, under one foot tall. At this point, the plant has put energy into the growth of the leaves but not yet begun the budding process (nettles will produce pink or yellow flowers later in the season). Nettles can be harvested their entire life cycle, but the leaves and stem get woody, so if you do some late harvesting, just harvest the brand new growth at the very top of the plant. Using gloves, harvest leaves the first two or three clusters of leaves from the top of each plant, after the morning dew has evaporated, but before the full strength of the day’s sun has arrived. Place the nettles in a paper or plastic bag for transport, and then carefully transfer to a colander using kitchen tongs, and then use tongs to transfer to pan or pot for cooking.
The benefits of the nettle will be most potent right way; it is best to consume them as soon as possible. A great way to obtain the full benefits of a the nettles is to make a fresh tea right away, removing the tops and bringing them indoors, to have water just-blow-boiling poured over them, steeped for ten minutes, and then enjoyed.
Another option is to cook up your nettles with any pasta or rice dish, any recipe wherein you might use a dark, leafy green, such as spinach. Here’s a link to a simple nettle, green onion, and prosciutto pasta.