Stinging nettles want you to stay away. They don’t warn you with bright red markings or thorns, but the gentlest graze of their stalks or leaves deposits stinging hairs into your skin. Each tiny spike acts as a needle, injecting a cocktail of chemicals that cause burning sensations.
But those willing to take the risk of harvesting this abundant plant stand to reap a delicious, nutritious reward. Stinging nettles are hearty with a nutty, mild flavor. They’re also extremely high in an array of minerals, as well as vitamins A and C, and have been used as a natural medicine for thousands of years.
If you’re imagining eating a plant that repeatedly stabs you in the mouth with poisonous mini-daggers, fear not. As soon as stinging nettles are cooked—whether puréed, steamed, boiled in broth, or baked—they lose their sting. The prepared greens can be used much like spinach—think spanakopita, pesto, savory pies, stews, pizzas, and pasta dishes.
There is insufficient evidence to support stinging nettles’ medical effectiveness, but their history as a health supplement dates all the way back to ancient Greece, where the plant served as a diuretic and joint pain reliever. Since then, healers have used stinging nettle, orally and topically, as a treatment for everything from arthritis and allergy relief to poor circulation and diabetes.
Herbalists recommend supplements in the form of teas or concentrates, but the whole plant makes for a delicious addition to a smorgasbord of dishes. Just be sure to strip it of its poisonous powers first—even the most compelling perceived benefit likely won’t outweigh the immediate, burning pain of eating one raw.
Need to Know
Stinging nettles grow wild all over the world. If you decide to forage some for yourself, wear long pants and thick gloves that protect your forearms. Dried leaves, tinctures, and extracts are also sold in many health food stores.