ISSUE 25  |  Life Aquatic

Field Guide: Nettles

June 23, 2014 6:30 PM

BY Kendra Wilson

Nettles, Urtica dioica: “The Generous Gardener”

A traditional nickname for the stinging nettle is “devil’s plaything.” It’s easy to demonize this wild plant as the scourge of country walks, since it causes a painful rash when it comes in contact with bare skin. But if you look beyond that, you’ll find this garden interloper has a generous side, feeding plants, insects, birds, and people.

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Above: Nettles and white campion. Photograph by Kendra Wilson. For more, see Color Story: 9 Favorite White-on-White Palettes.

When the ground warms and nettles begin to appear, use them to make a spring tonic, full of Vitamin C and iron. Simply snip off the tops of the plants and infuse in a teapot. Nettle tea tastes good; honest. (Nettles lose their sting once cooked. But you’ll need to wear rubber gloves when picking them to avoid a rash.)

Along with members of the dandelion family, nettles have found favor with both high-end chefs and people living in extreme circumstances. Anna Del Conte, the renowned Italian food writer, put nettles into a wartime context in her memoir Risotto with Nettles (add cream, if possible). And Locanda Locatelli, an Italian restaurant in London’s West End, celebrates late spring with a dish of “Risotto, ortiche e lumache” (nettle and snail risotto), a double challenge for some.

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Above: Photograph by Jim Powell.

The common, or stinging, nettle is a perennial weed, characterized by stinging hairs on its stems and leaves. These contain histamine juices; ironically, nettles are used in anti-histamine treatments for hay fever sufferers. Besides that medicinal use, nettles are loaded with nitrogen, which can help your garden flourish. Simply feed young plants with a nettle tea, made by gathering nettles and steeping them in water. (For more on the uses of nettle nutrition in the garden, see: Composting: Are You Obsessed?)

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Above: Photograph by Jim Powell.

Cheat Sheet

  • Nettles can be found everywhere; they’re just as comfortable around the periphery of things as they are popping up right in the middle. This hardy plant grows wild in every US state except Hawaii.
  • Foraged nettles make a delicious dinner.
  • Older nettles are fibrous and should be avoided, especially once they set seed.

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Above: Gathering nettles for compost. For more, see Composting: Are You Obsessed? Photograph by Jim Powell for Gardenista.

Keep It Alive

  • This shouldn’t pose any problems; most people want to kill nettles, and yet they survive. The plants prefer soil rich in phosphates, and they gravitate towards human habitats, as our effluvia provide ideal growing conditions.
  • It is thought that nettles are spreading because of the increased use of artificial fertilizers.
  • When you cut back nettles, young edible shoots will appear throughout the growing season.

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Photograph by Kendra Wilson.

Above: If you have plenty of room and like to allow your garden to go a little wild, consider designating space for a nettle patch. It will provide a breeding habitat for butterflies and moths, and also a home for the early nettle aphid, good news to ladybugs. It will also attract birds, which like to eat nettle seeds.

Nettles often grow near dock, which happens to be an instant cure for nettle rash (just rub the leaves over the skin). Cleavers (shown above), also known as stickyweed, are another common neighbor, and also edible. They can be gathered in spring with nettles and infused for a health boost. 

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Above: Photograph by Jim Powell.

Move quickly when an unwanted nettle in your garden begins to flower; seeds aren’t far behind. After the summer solstice, the whole plant will begin to look old and tired, its side shoots dripping menacingly with flowery seeds.

While foraging, you might see nettle-like plants with attractive nectar-filled white flowers, but don’t be fooled: It’s Archangel, which is from a completely different family. And you’ll be pleasantly surprised if you happen to grab one: commonly known as dead nettle, the Archangel is stingfree.

Read More

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Above: For more on the medicinal use of nettles, see Miracle Cure for Allergies: Gentle Nettle Tea. Photograph by Erin Boyle.

For more untamed gardening, see Can We Please Be Less Fanatically Tidy? And browse our Field Guide archives for the lowdown on less-wild edibles such as Chives, Tomatoes, and Carrots.