Updated: Nov 24, 2022
"His expression was unfathomable. Still holding my eyes with his own he reached out his free hand, fumbling over the rocks until he touched a bunch of nettles. He drew in his breath as his fingers touched the prickly stems, but his jaw clenched: he closed his fist and ripped the plants up by the roots.
'The peasants of Gascony beat a faithless wife wi' nettles,' he said.
He lowered the spiky bunch of leaves and brushed the flower heads lightly across one breast. I gasped from the sudden sting, and a faint red blotch appeared as though by magic on my skin."
-- From DRAGONFLY IN AMBER, by Diana Gabaldon, Chapter 29
If you've ever encountered a stinging nettle, you have no trouble understanding how being flogged with a bunch of them would be an effective punishment. Or how one's first experience with nettles would leave a lasting impression.
Seattle author, Langdon Cook, tells a story in his book, FAT OF THE LAND: ADVENTURES OF A 21ST CENTURY FORAGER, about his first encounter with the nettles as an eleven-year-old. He was playing softball with some friends, working on the fine arts of fielding and throwing a runner out on first. After his turn, he took a seat on the bench with his teammates. A second later, he leaped into the air, howling in pain. On the bench was a clutch of stinging nettles, strategically placed there by the team prankster. He'd been "nettled."
Cook is all grown up now and over the trauma of that day. (Although the memory of his buddies' laughter may still sting.) Today he writes enthusiastically about this plant because of its extraordinary nutritional benefits. (see below)
The sting this plant is famous for is caused by the release of histamine, acetylcholine and other chemicals from tiny, needle-like hairs, called trichomes, on the stems and tops of the leaves.
Species: Urtica dioica
Common name: Stinging nettle
Stinging nettles are native to Asia, Europe, North America and northern Africa.
Ready for a bit of Latin trivia? The medical term for hives - a raised, itchy rash often associated with allergy - is Urticaria, from the Latin word for nettle and the genus name for this plant, Urtica.
Counterintuitive as it may seem, people have been eating stinging nettles for centuries. I suppose that once they realized that cooking or soaking nettles in water would eliminate the chemicals that cause the sting, they were free to experiment.
Stinging nettles are at the top of the list of "super" greens. They are rich in vitamin C, making them another good food for preventing scurvy; as well as vitamin A, B-complex vitamins and beta-carotene. Nettles also have a high mineral content including: calcium, iron, potassium, manganese, iodine, and sulphur.
But wait, there's more! According to Cook, "Perhaps most famously, they are about the best source of protein in the plant kingdom. The ability to get protein from a source that didn't run away must have been very important to early humans, not to mention other protein-craving omnivores - which may explain why the nettle has evolved its formidable defense."
You aren't going to find stinging nettles at the grocery store. So if you want to try them for yourself, you're going to have to go on a foraging adventure. In this video, Theresa Carle-Sanders of Outlander Kitchen, shows how to harvest nettles in the wild. She also demonstrates how to eat a raw nettle leaf without getting stung!
Cooking with Nettles
There are many ways to use nettles in cooking: in soups, sauteed as a side dish, as a substitute for spinach in lasagna, in pesto, as a tea (using the dried leaves).