How and where to forage for nettles
Foraging expert Fraser Christian shows you how to turn weeds into nutritious food.
The common nettle, or ‘stinger’ as it’s best known, is a powerful and much underestimated part of the wild food chain. Despised by many for its painful sting and ability to spread in vegetable gardens, the nettle is far superior in nutritional value to many veg that grow in its cleared space and is an excellent source of vitamin C and iron.
Medicinally, it is beneficial in more ways than we fully understand – a true legend of a plant. One amazing use is as preventative antihistamine, which if taken steadily from very early spring will be most effective against allergies such as hay fever.
If you’re a gardener, next time you pull out nettles (if you don’t eat them) fill a bucket with them, top up with water and leave for a week or so (in a well-ventilated area). The result is a rather smelly dark liquid packed with nitrogen compounds that makes a free and most excellent plant food.
Don’t worry if you do sting yourself slightly, especially if you suffer from stiff joints, as it can be beneficial. The stinging contains neurotransmitters that wake up the mind via the nervous system as to a localised problem – most effective for providing relief for stiff joints and aching muscles.
Where you’ll find it
The nettle is a highly successful plant found all over the temperate areas of the world. It spreads by means of seeds and underground rhizomes that creep around just under the surface of the soil. It prefers rich soils and therefore does well around human settlements, benefiting from the waste we produce, often indicating where old settlements have long since disappeared from the countryside. Later in the summer months dark, shadowy glades and tracks will offer young pale plants, ideal for eating.
How to identify it
The jagged leaves held in pairs along the square stems are easily recognisable, particularly after having experienced the sting! The plant can range from 60cm to over 2 metres in height, and can be found in a number of different habitats and soil types. There are many varieties of different nettles and I am no expert at recognising all of them. Once again, if you’re unsure of a positive ID then leave it alone. Luckily most people can recognise a stinging nettle – it’s just a shame they don’t all know how great and useful they are!
How to forage it
Carefully pick the top four leaves of each plant in early spring, when the nettle is at its best – all the plant’s energy, which we are after, is at its growing points. As with all wild food, try to collect away from roads and areas of possible man-made poisons and ground contamination. If you want to dry and store the nettles, pick them during a dry period after a good downpour. You can wear gardening gloves if you don’t like the idea of being stung.
What you can do with it
Nettles can be regarded as a leaf vegetable, once the sting has been neutralised. This is done by means of blanching or boiling, whereby the stinging parts – the formic acid and other constituents – are broken down. Use it as you would spinach, in an Indian sag aloo curry, for instance, or simply steep the leaves in boiling water to make an excellent tea.
The nettles are best at the tips and in early spring they are supercharged with all things good. Collected leaf tips can be gently dried and stored for use throughout the year. The uses for nettles are far reaching: even cordage or twine can be made from the striped and twisted section of the stalks.
Wild Forage organises wild food and foraging courses along the seashore and in the countryside. Courses are run for small groups anywhere in the UK, plus individual courses in most southern counties. You can learn how to correctly identify and cook wild foods, as well as discover their medicinal and cosmetic qualities. For more info, visit www.wildforage.co.uk