Foraging for food has never been more popular, and come spring, stinging nettles are among the first edible plants to burst from the ground in the Northeast. “They’re really rampant,” says Stone Ridge-based herbalist Dina Falconi. “You just have to know where to look. They like richer soils like river banks, compost piles, and shady trails.”
The plant is easy to identify: The stem grows two to four feet tall, has dark green oval leaves with pointy tips, and is covered with tiny, stinging hairs. Falconi’s rule of thumb is that if the plant is “below your knee” — usually until about late May in the Hudson Valley — it is good for eating. “You can steam it and do lots of things with it. Personally, I like to put it in lasagna. It’s a rich, delicious green vegetable that is very like spinach or kale.”
In fact, stinging nettles are even healthier than those other veggies. “Yes, they are a superfood,” says “Wildman” Steve Brill, a Westchester-based naturalist who was once arrested in Central Park for eating a dandelion and now leads popular foraging tours all around the New York City region. “They are just packed with tons of nutrients.” No kidding: One source claims nettles have 29 times more calcium than spinach and they are commonly thought to have more protein than any other vegetable. In addition, they have an extremely high iron content and are loaded with dozens of minerals and vitamins.
Brill adds that “nettles have the richest, hardiest taste of any green. They have an earthy, almost nutty flavor. They’re very satisfying.” He eats them with rice and beans or sautés them. “But don’t boil them,” he warns. “It ruins them.”
Later in the season, if the plant is “above the knee, but before the flower,” Falconi says it makes an excellent tea. “Let it steep for a few hours,” she says. “It’s hard to describe what it tastes like. It’s meaty; it’s not aromatic at all, like a mint tea or a lemony tea.”
Once the plant has flowered, it should not be eaten. “At that point, nettles are mainly for medicinal purposes,” says Falconi, whose book Foraging & Feasting: A Field Guide and Wild Food Cookbook will be published in June.
Picking stinging nettles:
Falconi recommends clipping the top part of the plant. “Grab the first nodes, then go three or four nodes down and clip,” she says. “The stem is tougher. And besides, you don’t want to chop it down to the ground — foraging is not about mowing down the plants, you want them to come back really nicely.” Falconi recommends picking nettles with work gloves and long sleeves on “a nice cool day when the plant is perky.” If put quickly into a plastic bag, they can last up to a week in the refrigerator. Gloves should also be used to handle the nettles before cooking.
If you get stung:
Falconi says that she gets stung “all the time,” but luckily, she is not particularly reactive to the plant. Still, the herbalist uses the “old folk remedy” of crushing broad-leaf or yellow dock plants (which are often found near stinging nettles), mashing them until they are juicy, and immediately applying them to the rash. A nettle sting is not like poison ivy, says Falconi, noting that the sting is immediate and “doesn’t usually last more than a day.” Aloe vera oil can also be used to treat the rash.
Dina Falconi leads both private wild plant tours — “Sometimes people have a party in their backyard and invite their friends,” she says — as well as group classes through Wild Earth Programs. Visit www.wildearth.org for information.