Foraging Diaries - Common Nettle - Urtica dioica
The stinging nettle only
Will still be found to stand:
The numberless, the lonely,
The thronger of the land,
The leaf that hurts the hand.
That thrives, come sun, come showers;
Blow east, blow west, it springs;
It peoples towns, and towers
Above the courts of Kings,
And touch it and it stings.
- Alfred Edward Housman
Height: Up to 1.2m
Leaves: Up to 15cm long, opposite, ovate with drip tip (acuminate) and heart-shaped (cordate) or blunt-ended (truncate) base; margin deeply serrated; copious stinging hairs/ trichomes.
Flowers: May to September. Tiny green or white flowers in dense whorled clusters in the leaf axils and stem tips, wind-pollinated
Root and stem: Yellow creeping rhizomes / creeping rootstalk, stem is erect, usually unbranched (simple)
Habitat: Commonly found along rivers, lakes and streams. Survive well in areas that have been subject to human destruction such as in ditches, along rail road tracks, at the edge of woods, in abandoned farm fields and in empty lots. Nettles are often plentiful in these areas because of the high nitrogen levels in the soil left behind from waste such as decomposing hay and animal faeces
Distribution: Nearly worldwide, especially common in Europe, North America, North Africa, and parts of Asia
Parts used for food: Leaves, shoots, young tips, seeds.
The Common Nettle, also known as stinging nettle, nettle leaf, or just a nettle or stinger. The nettle is a very common plant, and can be found growing in gardens, hedgerows, fields, woodlands and many other habitats. The nettle is easily identifiable by most, even more so by touch thanks to its stinging hairs. The name nettle is rumoured to come from the Anglo-Saxon word for needle, which refers either to its stinging hairs (needles) or its importance as a source of thread.
A prank in the English countryside was to grasp a nettle firmly to crush the stinging hairs and avoid getting stung, while telling town children "the nettle doesn't sting this month" The townies would gingerly touch the plant and start yelping in pain. Despite this countryside bravado, it is recommended that you wear gloves to gather nettles when foraging.
Strimming nettles or foraging them on a regular basis from the same patch, results in the continuing to produce new growth. A good reason to forage them on a weekly basis if you are partial to using them in cooking. Even in the height of Summer, when most advice states not to eat them, you will still find them growing in shady patches.
Packed with Vitamin A,C and some B vitamins nettles can have up to 3 times more nutrient density than anything you would buy in the shops or be able to grow yourself.
Francois Couplan, the French ethnobotanist, claims nettle has seven times more vitamin C than oranges, three times more iron than spinach, with calcium rivalling that of some cheese, and their protein content is nearly as high as soy-beans.
100g fresh nettles are shown to contain: 670mg potassium, 590mg calcium, 18mcg chromium, 270mcg copper, 86mg magnesium, and 4.4mg iron.
The younger, tender nettles at the start of the season are usually recommended, and of course wearing gloves whilst gathering. Wearing thick gloves, use scissors to snip the main stem under the top four to six leaves. Collect the leaves into a basket or cloth bag. You can cut off the thicker stem as you go, leaving the tender leaves. It is advised not to pick nettles when the plants are flowering, the leaves develop cystoliths, (deposits of calcium carbonate inside enlarged epidermal (surface) cells. They may serve as protection from leaf-eating insects or other animals) which can irritate the digestive tract. Always forage away from busy paths, roads and sources of pollution.
After gathering nettles, they should be placed in water and soaked for ten minutes to encourage any inhabitants to depart. Apparently adding a pinch of salt to the water will speed up this process.
Nettles can be used in many different ways, dried and powdered they can be added to meals as a “superfood” – try adding to smoothies, omelettes, baked items and mash potatoes.
To dry nettles in the oven, after soaking in water, place your clean Nettle neatly on baking parchment and warm them slowly in the oven at 170- 180 °F for 1-2 hours. The temperature must be below 200, otherwise the plant will bake rather than dry.
Nettles were often used in “Spring Tonics” Nettle porridge was cooked in Scotland. In Ireland the porridge was known as “brachan neantog” made using oatmeal and nettle, the young leaves were boiled and mixed with the oatmeal. In Nepal the porridge was made by adding nettle to various grains with salt and chilli. Other Spring Tonics were nettle tea and nettle beer. Nettle tea is one to try and can either be sweetened with honey or salted as a broth.
Having tried Nettle Tea and soup before, I wanted to experiment with something different and what better to do so with than a cake...
Stinging Nettle Cake
2 cups (100g) packed raw young nettle leaves
200g butter at room temperature
150g granulated sugar
3 large eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
zest and juice of ½ lemon
250g all-purpose plain flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
FOR THE LEMON BUTTERCREAM
150g butter at room temperature
300g powdered icing sugar
Zest and juice of ½ a lemon
lemon zest optional
For the Nettle Cake:
Preheat oven to 325°F / 170°C. Grease and line two 7” (18cm) round cake tins.
Using rubber gloves, carefully wash the stinging nettle leaves and remove any stems.
Place in a pan of boiling water and boil for 3-4 minutes, this will remove the sting.
Rinse under cold water, drain and puree with a stick blender, adding the lemon juice will make it easier, then put to one side. Ensure the nettles are pureed completely for the best solid green colour. If you can't puree it fully the cake will still be delicious, but the colour will be more flecks of green than solid green.
In a large bowl, cream together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, then beat in the pureed nettles, vanilla, zest and lemon juice.
Sift in the flour, baking powder and salt and stir to gently combine.
Spoon the mixture into the prepared tins, push to the edges and level, then bake for 25 minutes or until an inserted skewer comes out clean. Cool for 10 minutes in the tins and then turn onto a wire rack to cool completely before icing.
For the Lemon Buttercream:
Cream the butter until fluffy in a large bowl. Add the icing sugar and beat. Beat in the zest and a little of the lemon juice. Add more lemon juice to make it a buttercream consistency and beat again. Store in the fridge until ready to use.
Spread a little of the buttercream between the layers of the completely cooled cakes and sandwich together. Cover the cake in the remaining buttercream and decorate with blackberries and lemon zest.
Enjoy, this is an absolutely delicious cake.
Other recipes to try:
Experiment with the ratio’s yourself but a good rule of thumb is two cups of water for every cup of leaves.
Add water to the leaves.
Bring the water just to a boil.
Turn off the heat and leave to sit for five minutes.
Pour the mixture through a small strainer.
Add a bit of honey, cinnamon, or sugar.
Start out by only having one cup of nettle tea to make sure you do not have any reactions to it.
3 Medium sized potatoes
½ a large onion
3 cloves of garlic
A reusable carrier bag or basket full of nettles
Heat some olive oil in a medium saucepan and add the diced onion and chopped garlic, and fry for a couple of minutes until translucent
Add the diced potato, vegetable stock and water, then cover with a lid and simmer for 10 minutes
Once the potato is tender, then add the washed nettle leaves and cook for another minute until they have wilted down
Add the lemon juice and blend until you have a smooth soup
Add salt and pepper to taste, serve with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and some seeds on top, you could use nigella seeds, but sunflower and pumpkin work too. You could also top with some edible spring flowers such as primrose for a pretty garnish.
1 litre of loosely packed stinging nettle leaves
600 ml milk
1 tsp fine sea-salt
165g plain flour
45g butter, melted, plus extra for frying
lingonberry or cranberry jam, to serve
Whisk the milk, eggs and salt in a bowl.
Gradually add the flour, then the melted butter, whisking until the batter is smooth.
Rest at room temperature for 30 minutes.
Bring a large saucepan of water to the boil. Add the nettles and cook for 10-30 seconds or until blanched.
Remove the nettles and refresh under cold running water. Drain and squeeze the blanched nettles to remove as much water as possible.
Finely chop the nettles and stir into the pancake batter.
Heat a frying pan over medium-high heat. Add a knob of butter and a ladle of the batter, and tilt pan to spread; you want a relatively thin pancake, about 2 mm thick and 10 cm in diameter.
Cook for 1 minute or until set and browned.
Flip over and cook for a further 1 minute or until brown.
Transfer the pancake to a plate. Repeat with the remaining batter, adding a knob of butter in between each pancake.
Serve the pancakes warm with jam.
Harford, R (2019) 'Stinging Nettle Notebook' The Foragers' Notebook Series