I look forward every spring to harvesting and eating stinging nettles (Urtica dioica), an herbaceous wild plant native to Europe, Africa, Asia, and North America. If you’ve ever encountered nettles and suffered their sting, you may be doubtful as to their edibility. Nettle leaves are armed with tiny needle-like hairs filled with irritating compounds, including formic acid (the same compound secreted by red ants). But a simple quick sauté neutralizes the irritants, allowing us to enjoy a tasty, nutritious vegetable with a flavor similar to spinach.
Wherever nettles grow, they’ve been used as a healing food and medicine. As one of the most nutrient dense plants in the world, nettle leaves are a rich source of easily absorbable minerals, including iron, calcium, magnesium, potassium, phosphorus, manganese, silica, iodine, silicon, sodium, and sulfur. Nettles also offer vitamin C, carotenoids, B vitamins, and chlorophyll, and are surprisingly high in protein.
With their impressive nutrient profile and delicious, robust flavor, stinging nettles are my favorite herbal super food. Nettles also contain an array of phytonutrients that together act as potent protectors against oxidative stress. I consider nettles to be an excellent tonic for everyone, especially for recovery following illness and for those suffering from a chronic health issue. Traditionally, stinging nettle leaf has been used for treating anemia, arthritis, eczema, and gout. Nettle root is specific for prostate health (especially for alleviating the symptoms of benign prostatic hyperplasia), and the seeds are used as a kidney-rejuvenating tonic in Traditional Chinese Medicine.
In recent years, nettles have gained a reputation for helping to alleviate hay fever because of their natural antihistamine effects. In a randomized, double blind study, more than half of hay fever sufferers rated freeze-dried nettles as moderately to highly effective at relieving their symptoms. I often suggest freeze-dried nettles in combination with the bioflavonoid quercetin to ease allergies and hay fever; it’s most effective when started at least a couple of months prior to hay fever season. In addition, I recommend nettles and quercetin for gout, skin rashes, immune support, lung health, and general detoxification.
Nettles leaf also shows promise for improving metabolic syndrome, the cluster of risk factors (including hypertension, high blood sugar, and cholesterol abnormalities) that is strongly associated with heart disease and diabetes. Research shows that nettle leaf has antihypertensive, antihyperlipidemic and antidiabetic properties. In a 2012 study, researchers tested the effects of nettles leaf extract on insulin resistant rats. Blood glucose, insulin, last fasting insulin resistance index (FIRI), serum triglyceride (TG), low-density lipoprotein (LDL), very low-density lipoprotein (VLDL), high-density lipoprotein (HDL), alanin trasaminase (AST), alkaline phosphatase (ALP), leptin and LDL/HDL ratio were determined. When compared to a control group, the daily administration of fructose was associated with a significant increase in FIRI, blood glucose and insulin; a significant decrease in leptin; and no significant change in TG, HDL, LDL, LDL/HDL ratio, VLDL, ALT, and ALP. Nettles extract significantly decreased serum glucose, insulin, LDL and leptin, LDL/HDL ratio and FIRI (Ahangarpour A, et al., 2012). Based on their findings, the researchers concluded that nettles leaf extract might be useful for improving type-2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome.
Nettles are a wonderful nutritive-rich and cleansing food that everyone should incorporate into their diet. If you have access to fresh wild nettles, collect the young, tender leaves in the spring before the plant flowers. Be sure to wear heavy gardening gloves when harvesting—nettle stings are painful! Wash the leaves thoroughly in cool water after harvesting (wear rubber gloves for this task, as well).
I enjoy nettles every spring at least a couple of times per week, either sautéing them briefly with a bit of garlic (they cook quickly, much like spinach) or adding to soup, frittatas, or omelets. I especially enjoy making nettle pesto; in my Italian culinary heritage, this is a common spring dish. Simply substitute fresh nettles for basil in your favorite pesto recipe, and you’ll have a nutrient rich treat for tossing with pasta or adding to an omelet. Remember that nettle must be cooked before eating to destroy the stinging hairs; when making pesto, blanch the leaves first.
Our family also enjoys these delicious savory nettle chips—they’re a nutritious alternative to potato or corn chips. We came across the recipe in a newsletter from Mountain Rose Herbs and have had great success making it.
Savory Nettle Chips Recipe
20 to 40 freshly harvested nettle leaves
2 ½ teaspoons organic extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon organic rice wine vinegar
1 to 2 tablespoons organic shoyu, soy sauce, tamari or Braggs
1 to 2 cloves of garlic, crushed
2 to 3 tablespoons nutritional yeast
Fresh ground black pepper to taste
1. Wearing gloves, harvest your nettles, rinse with cool water, and dry. Separate the leaves by breaking the leaf from the main stem.
2. Mix all of the glaze ingredients together in a bowl. Add the nettle leaves and gently toss until each leaf is well coated.
3. On a parchment paper lined cookie sheet, unravel each leaf. Place pan in a warm oven at 200 degrees and allow the leaves to slowly dehydrate.
4. After 15 to 20 minutes, peel each leaf off of the parchment paper and flip over so the other side can crisp in the oven. Check your nettles every 5 to 10 minutes until they lose sogginess and become nice and crunchy. Be careful not to let them char and turn dark brown or black. Total cooking time can vary between 30 and 45 minutes.
5. Once you reach the desired crispiness, remove and allow to cool. Store in an airtight glass container for up to one week.