Gaelic: Deanntag (pronounced like jan-tach)
Dear nettles have a special place in my heart. Like most people I grew up wary of them and avoided them all summer to prevent any stings, but as I’ve grown up and learned about wild food I’ve made a real bond with our stinging friends. I adore them for their amazing abundance and their nutrients. Nettles are a true superfood full of vitamins and minerals and come with loads of health benefits.
Nettles are one of the green pioneers of spring, popping up just when our supply of preserved winter food starts to dwindle and we crave freshness and nutrients - as would happen in older times before supermarkets. When nettles start to grow in early spring they're packed full of all the vitamins and minerals that humans need after a harsh winter. They also provide a very rich vegetable flavour that can easily be incorporated into any meal.
Nettles like to grow close to human habitation because they thrive in soil with signs of heavy human activity. In other words, nettles chose to be our neighbours and bring the wilderness into our gardens and driveways. My experience of nettles is that they love humans and will always follow us around trying their best to offer us their nutrients. They’re far less common in untouched landscapes than they are in cities and villages across Scotland.
The stems of mature plants make excellent fibre for spinning and weaving and have been used for textiles for thousands of years. There's a whole modern community dedicated to nettle fibre. It's much like hemp and makes beautifully strong fibre.
Stinging hairs all over the plants
Distinctive jagged leaf margins
Height of around 1 metre in summer
Growing in dense patches along waste ground
Flowers and seeds of dangling wee catkins in summer that are always green
Lookalikes to be Aware of
Dead Nettle has cleverly evolved to look like stinging nettle and piggyback off the intuitive fear potential predators have of stinging nettle as a defence mechanism, though the two plants are not closely related. Dead nettle is also edible so do not fear if you confuse them. The main difference between the two is that dead nettle does not sting and it has white or purple flowers. Stinging nettles only ever have demure green flowers/seeds.
Learn how to identify more plants, edible and toxic at a Wild Food Arran foraging walk, you can sign up here.
Taste and Edibility
Nettles make an excellent base for a broth. They have a rich vegetable taste which has a surprising amount of flavour. Tea can be made with the leaves that feels incredibly nourishing to drink. The whole plant is a powerhouse of nutrients. The young leaves can be cooked and eaten like spinach. Heating removes the sting as does crushing or bruising the plant.
Broth made with nettles used to be called cal deanntaig (St Columba’s broth) and eaten as a medicinal meal through spring. There is an old Scottish saying that says you should eat at least seven meals of nettles a year for good health. Nettles have been eaten as a medicine for thousands of years. They were used to treat rheumatism, jaundice and muscular pain. Nowadays they’re still used by herbalists for their anti-inflammatory properties.
The entire young plants are edible, but older plants need some assessment before eating. If the individual nettle plant has any small green flowers or seeds the leaves are no longer edible, but the seeds and flowers are. So stick to the rule of eating leaves in the spring and seeds in the summer and make sure to check for those distinctive green catkins of flowers/seeds before harvesting.
As with any wild food, nettles are an important part of a healthy ecosystem and should be harvested sustainably to prevent damage to the other beasties who depend on them. The rule for gathering any wild food is ‘thinning abundance’ so pick a little from here and a little from there. NEVER clear entire patches of wild plants for food because the patch will be damaged and the future of that food will be jeopardised for us and for our wild siblings.
Getting Past the Sting
The only downside of the nettle is the stinging part. The stings of mature plants can be quite painful and last for several days, but they do not do any long term damage and some people even seek out the stings as a way of imbibing the nettle medicine! People claim stinging nettle stings have cured them of all kinds of ills. So if you do get stung, think about all those future health benefits!
If you want to skip the supposed cure-all microneedles of the stinging nettle, there is a way! The knack is to surprise the nettle with a firm grasp and pluck the top off. The microneedles that cause the sting can only puncture your skin if they brush you gently. When you firmly grasp the nettle you actually crush the stings and prevent them from catching you. This really does work, although the initial fear of plunging your hand into a patch of nettles usually takes a while to get over.
Another good way to harvest nettles in spring is to snip the top 3 pairs of leaves off at the stem underneath the third pair so that the entire top of the nettle stays intact, as seen in the video below. Then gently lift the top part into your basket using the scissors. I imagine this wont work well with very sharp scissors, just normal kitchen scissors should do the trick. Of course, gloves work a treat too.
A famous naturalist called Reverend John Lightfoot recorded his observations of Scotland in the 1700s. He travelled to Arran in 1777 and witnessed locals using nettles to make a concoction to curdle cheese. So the importance of nettles on this land probably goes way back into the distant past with loads of lost recipes and medicines that use nettle.
I maintain a small patch of nettles in my garden each year so that they produce fresh nettles tops all summer and autumn. Once the flowers appear I snip the flower tops off them so that they produce new fresh growth again. This way I have a ready supply of tasty nettle greens for soups all summer.