Foraging for Nettles (May to October)
Words by forager, Sarah Watson
Photography by Sarah Watson
The humble, ubiquitous stinging nettle is much underrated, but this truly useful plant can bring wonderful herbaceous, grassy and earthy flavours to drinks.
There must be few people in Europe who haven't been stung by a nettle! It's at its peak in spring and simply heating, drying, or juicing the leaves sorts out the sting. Being so widespread and common in temperate climates, nettle is a sustainable ingredient - you probably won't have to go far to find it.
Common name: Stinging nettle or common nettle
Latin name: Urtica dioica
Plant family: Nettle (Urticaceae)
Edible part: Leaves
Stinging nettle has a long history of use as a medicine, food, tea and fibre for cloth. It's packed with vitamins, minerals antioxidants and chlorophyll.
The stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) is native to Europe and common, being particularly abundant in the north. It also grows in much of Asia and parts of Africa. A widespread plant, it has been introduced to other parts of the world such as Canada, the US, South America and Australia. Small nettle or annual nettle (Urtica urens) is a very similar edible plant with stinging hairs, but is shorter than the stinging nettle, with rounder leaves.
Nettles often grow in places that have been inhabited by people and near buildings, being found on cultivated ground, waste land, pasture land, damp ground, road verges and in woodlands. They favour fertile soils, particularly where enriched by animal or plant waste or fertilisers.
The stinging nettle is a perennial herb with creeping, yellow roots. It grows up to a metre-and-a-half high by summer and dies back in winter. Although where protected from hard frosts, it is available much of the year round. It has soft, green, elongated heart-shaped leaves up to 15cm long with a pointed tip. The leaves have coarsely-toothed edges and grow in opposite pairs on a tough stem which is square in cross-section and often flushed dark purple. The leaves and stems are very hairy with both non-stinging and stinging hairs. The hollow, stinging hairs pierce the skin to inject irritant chemicals causing a painful sting. The tiny, greenish or brownish flowers are held in drooping catkins.
Pictured above is yellow archangel in bud, a common dead-nettle. Dead-nettles look similar to nettles, although they are in the mint family (Lamiaceae). Like nettles, they have toothed leaves arranged in opposite pairs, although they don't sting. They have hooded white, yellow or purple flowers in whorls around the stem, rather than the greenish catkins of stinging nettles. Both also have stems which are square in cross-section, but stinging nettle stems have an obvious groove in some of the faces. Young leaves of dead-nettles are edible but have a different flavour, being strongly aromatic.
Foraging for nettles
Wear thick gardening gloves or rubber gloves when picking and washing nettles to avoid being stung. They are better gathered from shaded places rather than full sun, and before they flower. After flowering, the leaves are said to develop irritant gritty particles. The topmost two or three pairs of leaves are the tastiest and tenderest. Cutting back older nettle plants can encourage them to produce new shoots for much of the year if the weather is mild enough. Nettles support over 40 species of insect in the UK, including butterflies, so leaving some benefits wildlife.
Nettles are efficient at accumulating contaminants like heavy metals from the environment. Be careful not to pick them from old industrial sites, next to busy roads or areas sprayed with weedkillers.
Nettle may interact with some medications, such as blood thinners, or those for diabetes or high blood pressure.
When foraging, keep to public footpaths if you're on private land. Always use good field guides to identify your finds to 100% certainty before eating them - if in doubt, leave it out.
How to use
Stinging nettle leaves are used in country wines and sometimes to flavour cider and liqueurs. They are also traditionally used to make a crisp, nettle 'beer' in the British Isles, although it's more of a sparkling wine than a beer.
Wild nettle cordial
Abigail Clephane, brand ambassador for Bruichladdich, says cordial made from fresh nettles turns bright pink and tastes like apricot, and when dried nettles are used, the cordial tastes like peach iced tea. To make Abi's refreshing low-sugar nettle cordial, use:
120g washed, fresh or dried nettles,
100g white sugar,
6g citric acid.
Bring all the ingredients, except the nettles, to the boil. Add the nettles and remove from the heat. Infuse for a couple of hours, then strain. Funnel into a sterilised bottle, store in the fridge and consume within 2 weeks, or freeze until needed. For a longer-lasting syrup, add more sugar and bring it back to the boil for a couple of minutes before bottling and sealing.