Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) has a bad reputation for leaving stings on unsuspecting hikers who brush up against it. Despite its sting, nettle is an edible, medicinal, and all-around useful plant! In this post, I talk about foraging nettle, its uses, and how to cure that painful sting.
Identifying Stinging Nettle
Stinging nettle grows throughout North America. It enjoys damp soils and is found growing along roadsides, in ditches, and waste lands.
It grows one to six feet tall and is often found in dense patches. The leaves are opposite and ovate with toothed-serrated edges. The flowers are small, light green, and form a densely clustered spike that often dangles. The stems and leaves of nettle are covered in small hollow hairs, called trichomes.
Stinging nettle has some lookalikes. Three common ones are wood nettle (Laportea canadensis), slender nettle (Uritica gracilis), and dwarf nettle (Urtica urens). All of them are edible. Wood nettle differs from stinging nettle because it has alternate leaves. Slender nettle has less stinging hairs and dwarf nettle is smaller and more compact. Of these nettles, dwarf nettle has the most powerful sting.
To harvest nettle, use gloves and scissors to prevent stings. It’s possible to forage it without gloves by pinching the stem and pushing the hollow hairs downwards. You have to be firm and quick! That said, I recommend you gather this plant using protection. Once you are familiar with nettle and willing to risk being stung, you can practice gathering it without the use of gloves.
Stopping the Sting
The sting from nettle comes from the formic acid in its hairs. It causes irritation, redness, swelling, and pain. Some people are more sensitive to it than others. Depending on your sensitivity and contact with the plant, the pain can last a few minutes to several days.
If you get stung, wait ten minutes and then wash the area with soap and cool water. After washing, some people apply tape to remove any remaining fibres. Antihistamines can help reduce itching and swelling. A cold compress can help with irritation and pain. Aloe vera gel and a paste made from baking soda and water might provide some relief. Carefully apply these without rubbing the skin.
There are other remedies floating around the internet, but I haven’t been able to find any scientific evidence for their effectiveness. This isn’t to say they don’t work. Some say that the juices from crushed nettle or dock leaves can help relieve pain.
Whatever you do, never scratch the area and avoid heat and warm water.
Eating Stinging Nettle
Nettle is delicious! You can eat the young shoots and leaves. They are best in the early spring. Once nettle goes to flower, it loses much of its nutritional value. You can also eat nettle seeds, gather them in late summer or early fall.
Cooking nettle will make it safe to eat. Nettle cooks similar to spinach. It can be steamed, boiled, added to stir-fries, pizzas, and breads. It makes great soup, pesto, and tea. I like sautéed nettle in butter and garlic. Sprinkle the seeds over food or add them to spice mixes.
Other Uses: Cordage and Dye
Nettle fibres have been used for thousands of years to make cordage and clothing. Ray Mears has an excellent video showing you how to do this.
You can also use nettle to make dye. The roots produce a yellow dye and the leaves a light green.
If you enjoy foraging, check out some of my other foraging posts: Foraging Sustainably, Common Spring Plants and Their Uses, Foraging Lilac, and 5 Edible Trees.
9 comments on “Foraging Stinging Nettle: Everything You Need to Know”
Hi Woodland Woman, do you know where in Ontario i could find some stinging nettle? I live in GTA. I often in surrounding areas and i never see them.
Maybe it’s still early now, when is the best time?
Thanks for your question. I don’t know a specific location in the GTA. You might have some success searching iNaturalist. People record their plant findings and their locations using it. There will definitely be some recordings for your area. That said, it’s still a little early to find nettle, but it is an early spring plant. You’ll probably start finding it in May and through summer.
You’ll find it in open woodlands, riparian zones (between land and rivers and streams), and sometimes in ditches. They love moist and rich soils.
Good luck in your search!
High Park down by the creek and dog offleash road on Parkside Drive there is a forest of stinging nettle
Thanks for helping out! 🙂
My name is Bernie. I am a quadriplegic and have used stinging nettles to help my joints. It sounds strange, but the ones with more stingers work better. I think these would be the dwarf. Everywhere I look to buy natural plants they only have the regular size. The other problem is I can’t scavenge for them myself as I am in a wheelchair.
Would it be possible for you to mail some plants to me? I would pay you for your time and postage. I was working off of two plants, and they just died. So I need to get some from somewhere. Thanks for your consideration, and please let me know if you have any thoughts or ideas.
Hi Bernie, thanks for your message. I don’t have access to a regular source of nettle anymore. I hope you find an alternative means. Best of luck.
Bernie email and I’ll mail you some. Just discovered it in my back yard
Can you eat stinging nettle raw?
Hi Brandon! Some people use them raw in smoothies. Blending them should remove the sting. Otherwise, I wouldn’t recommend eating them raw.