Stinging nettle (the common name that incorporates all the other common names, including Wood nettles, etc.) is possibly the loneliest plant in the entire world. It just wants a hug!!
The most common species in my area being Laportea Canadensis, Urtica dioica,and Urtica urens are an incredibly nutritious, vitamin rich, fiber bearing, wild edible family that can be very tricky to harvest. The spines are made of silica and contain a cocktail of chemicals, not the least of which is histamine. Brushing up against them will instantly hurt and leave welts on your skin, feeling like a mosquito bite on steroids. The entire plant is covered in these spines, including the underside of the leaves.
How can anyone possibly eat them? Well, they are pretty widely distributed around the world and eaten pretty much anywhere they grow.
The key is to soak them in water prior to cooking, or to cook them fully. In North America, it was not only an important food source, many cultures turned the nettle plant into fibers which they then wove into highly decorative bags. Some sources say that their fiber content is similar to that of flax (the plant that creates linen). I’m fairly confident that the chunks of vitrified plant silica I used to find archaeologically in Mississippian trash middens may have partially come from nettle.
It is a readily available food source that grows pretty much everywhere. The cooked texture and flavor is somewhat similar to that of spinach. It is MUCH more heat tolerant than spinach, however. It grows in nitrogen rich soil, and can be used as an indicator as such.
The plants can reach four feet in height, but can get tough when they get that size. The leaves are best consumed before the plant flowers (which look nothing like flowers, more like bumpy yellow strings that hang down from the leaf bracts) because the leaves can form crystals which act as an irritant to the urinary tract. The different species like different habitats and that can be open fields, waterways or in deep woods. They all have the distinctive needles that hurt like a bee sting. Some common remedies for the sting is to rub dock, the spores of some ferns, and jewelweed on the affected area. I’ve used jewelweed as it generally grows near and it does seem to help.
This is a great plant to get to know if you do a lot of camping, through hiking, or survival training. In a perfect situation, you can harvest by donning a pair of nitrile gloves and using scissors to snip the top, youngest leaves and put them in some sort of container.
I’ve been trying to be more disciplined about my foraging and have started carrying paper bags to put my harvests in to keep them isolated from one another. Saves a mess when I get home, and with something like stinging nettles, you don’t want to accidently find some in your dock, sorrel or smartweed. Ouchy. If you take some sort of bag to put your nettle in to protect you from an accidental sting later, it is a good idea. Lunch sized paper bags, or even shopping bags work well.
I was recently camping at a private campground in Missouri trying to get close to center of the path of totality for the Great American Eclipse (there WILL be a lengthy blog on that topic at some point) and there was a fair amount of nettle growing around the campsite.
The last morning, I harvested some, and made a chiffonade cut of it, I then soaked it water while I was cooking a dozen eggs for breakfast. By the time the eggs were done, I cooked the nettle. One of our friends had never eaten it before and was surprised by how much it reminded her of spinach. This is a great plant to learn, and try to incorporate into your regular diet. Anything you can use spinach or kale for, nettle will do the job, and with more fiber and nutrients.
When not camping, I put it in a container, soaked it and then cooked the chopped nettle in a cast iron skillet.
Just don’t give it a hug.