Edible Plants: Nettles; Nutrition, Medicinal and Culinary Uses
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Edible Plants: Nettles; Nutrition, Medicinal and Culinary Uses

Nettles are a wild edible food that are becoming popular as people turn to foraged food sources. Nettles are prepared similarly to spinach, they taste just as good, and are even more nutritious, being an excellent source of protein and antioxidants.

In the past foraging for wild foods was considered a task only for expert hardcore foodies. People who new what to look for and where to find it, without any risk of being poisoned. Wild edibles such as nettles had a bad reputation as food, fit only to eat out of necessity in an outdoor survival situation. These attitudes have changed as chefs look for new ingredients to broaden their menus and the public looks for nutritious, antioxidant rich, wholesome, tasty foods they can pick themselves.

As a result wild edibles like nettles, nasturtium and violets are appearing on the menus of fine dinning restaurants, from Nottingham, England to Oregon in the USA and food suppliers have also caught on to this trend. There is even an Android app called Boskoi that educates people about which foods to forage for and what is available in their neighborhood. One of the most abundant wild edibles is nettles. Nettles have medicinal benefits and they are extremely nutritious. Furthermore, with the right preparation, they are a culinary treat, on a par with spinach or sorrel.

Nettles originate from Eurasia, but are also native to North America. They can be found in temperate regions where they grow in moist, damp woodlands, along river banks and by road sides. As anyone will know who has brushed up against them, with bare skin exposed, they are covered in tiny almost microscopic hairs which irritate and cause stinging pain. Cooking or drying nettles naturalizes their stinging ability and turns them into a leafy spring vegetable that can be used in exactly the same way as spinach. Some also claim that the very young tender nettle leaves can be eaten raw.

There are many varieties of nettles but they all have one thing in common. They all sting to a certain degree, although some varieties are less potent than others. Stinging nettles, (Urtica dioica) also known as common nettles, are perennial plants which grow to a height of 3-5 feet. Aside from having stinging hairs on their leaves, this plant’s flowers contain a nasty liquid designed to irritate intruders. The dog nettle (Urtica urens), with a maximum height of 20 inches, doesn’t grow as tall as the stinging nettle, yet its leaves are more aggravating. However, once prepared, dog nettles are a good addition to any salad. Wood nettles (Laportea canadensis) has less stinging hairs than the aforementioned and has tiny greenish-white flowers which grow in clusters. Although they might look more appealing, many experts recommend to consume nettles before the plants flower, in early spring, as it may cause kidney problems. It is also safe to eat new nettles in the fall.

Foragers’ or “back to landers”, as they are also known, should be aware of plants that look similar to nettles, and grow in the same locations, but are not nettles. These include clearwood (Pilea pumila) and some plants from the mint family (Lamiaceae) including catnip (Nepeta cataria). Fortunately these plants are nontoxic, although some are not very palatable. When searching for nettles it is best to wear work gloves and cover exposed skin. If you do get stung, look for jewelweed or dock leaf and rub on the effected area. This will alleviate itching and redness. Another plant’s leaves that relieves itching is plantain or plantago species. Plantago species is nothing to do with the tropical fruit plantain, from the banana family. If foraging is not your thing, dried organic nettles or freeze dried nettles can also be purchased online from specialist herb suppliers or some specialist grocery stores.

The Culinary Uses of Nettles: It is often said that nettles need to be prepared properly in order to be palatable. This is the case with most leafy vegetables, although because nettles have a high content of chlorophyll they maintain their green color better during cooking. One of the best ways to cook nettles is to steam or braise them in a flavorful broth. Nettle soup is made with potatoes, leeks, cabbage and sometimes beans. Nettles can be added to stews and combine well with onions, garlic and nutmeg. Nettle tea is invigorating and is thought to have medicinal benefits. To prepare nettle tea, first simmer the nettles in a pot with water for a few minutes (use roots and leaves), then leave to steep for about 20 minutes. However you prepare nettles, remember to wear gloves up until the point they are cooked.

The Nutritional Value of Nettles: Nettles are extremely nutritious, in fact they contain more protein, 5.5 grams per 100 gram serving, than any other leafy vegetable, including spinach and cabbage. Nettles are an excellent source of iron, in fact a highly nutritious juice made of nettles was given to Russian peasants in the 19th century to cure iron anemia deficiency. Other minerals found in nettles are calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, potassium, silicon, sodium, sulfur and iodine. Nettles are also a good source of vitamin C and vitamin A, or beta carotene. One hundred grams of nettles contain 57 calories.

Nettles also contain tannins or tannic acid. Tannic acid is what causes the astringency or dry mouth sensation, also found with berries and red wine. Tannins have numerous health benefits. They are anti-mutagenic, antibacterial and antioxidant. However ‘en vivo’ studies have demonstrated that consuming high amounts of tannins for a prolonged period can reduce the absorption of iron and some other minerals. It can also interfere with the efficiently of digestive enzymes.

The Medicinal uses for Nettles: Nettles are well known for their curative and protective properties in traditional folk medicine. They are thought to aid digestion, relieve rheumatic pain, cleanse the blood, and are considered a restorative for the kidneys and bladder. A decoction of nettles is used to treat dandruff and cure mouth infections. Nettle tea is good for healthy skin and skin diseases such as eczema. Nettle supplements are thought to be a natural remedy for pollen allergies such as hay fever, and according to German studies in 2000, nettle root extract contains compounds which can inhibit the grow of prostate cancer cells.

Stinging nettle or great nettle, (Urtica dioca) image credit, flickr.com. Primary image; (Laportea canadensis) wood nettle, image credit, Flickr.com.  

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Comments (1)

thanks for this great article.  Do you know if the nutritional properties of Laportea canadensis are the same as Urtica dioica?  I've read in many places that they are "equally nutritious", but only seen specific nutritional info about Urtica dioica, not Laportea canadensis.  Has anyone done an analysis on Laportea?