Spring is emerging! Is there a more exciting season?
The days are getting longer, the birds are returning and Oh, the plants! The plants are beginning to peek out of their winter resting places. Every day feels like a new adventure in plant sightings.
Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica)
Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica), often simply called nettle, is one of my favorite springtime treats. Although nettle hides its delicious possibility from many people by covering itself in small stinging hairs, herbalists know that, with just a bit of preparation, nettles are an incredible nutrient-dense food.
Many people love nettle, not only for its taste but also because it can help to strengthen bones, teeth and hair. Nettle leaves also strengthen the urinary system and can help to reduce seasonal allergy symptoms. Scientists have also studied nettle and have shown that a fresh extract of nettle leaf may regulate both blood glucose levels and inflammation levels.1 2 3 4
How to Identify and Harvest Nettle
Look for nettle in moist soils with full sun to part shade. It likes disturbed ground and protein-rich soils. It often grows around old homesteads or in the woods (if there is enough sunlight).
Nettle grows as single stalks with opposite leaves (similar to the mint family). Its leaves are heart shaped with a toothed edge. Some plants have more elongated leaves.
Nettle can be a dioecious plant, meaning the female and male reproductive organs are on different plants. The flowers are small and hang in long clusters arising from the leaf axils.
The whole plant is covered in stinging hairs, which can leave a mild to moderate stinging rash when you brush up against it.
The leaves are best harvested when the plant is young. I like to harvest the young tops at the leaf axil, leaving behind several sets of leaves, which allows the plant to continue growing. You can often harvest from the same patch of nettles several times in one growing season.
To avoid being stung, wear gloves and long sleeves when harvesting nettle. You get the worst nettle stings when you lightly brush up against the plant. I find that pinching them off with a firm grip helps me to avoid most, but not all, of the sting.
Nettles should not be harvested for food after the plant goes to flower, as the leaves of the older plant may be irritating to the kidneys.
Some of you may be wondering… “Why do you want to eat a plant that stings?!”
Cooking nettles by blanching them in boiling water takes away all of the stinging. To do this, I boil water, add the fresh nettles, stir well for about 1 minute, then drain. They can then be used similar to any other cooked green.
Cooking them into a soup also gets rid of the sting. In this nettle soup recipe, we are combining nettles with another seasonal treat: asparagus.
Asparagus (Asparagus officinalis)
I look forward to buying freshly harvested bundles of asparagus from my farmer’s market every spring! Like nettle, asparagus is a nutrient-dense spring food. It is high in folate and vitamin K as well as a range of minerals, including calcium, magnesium and potassium.5
Asparagus can grow wild and is a favorite foraging food both in the US and Europe. Studies have shown that wild grown asparagus is higher in antioxidants than cultivated asparagus.6 However, cultivated asparagus also contains many antioxidants. In Eating on the Wild Side by Jo Robinson she writes, “In a nutritional analysis of eighteen vegetables, asparagus was found to have more antioxidants than all but three of those tested — broccoli, green peppers, and burdock.”7
Asparagus quickly loses both its flavor and phytonutrients after harvesting so it’s best to harvest and eat right away. Robinson gives the following guides for assessing whether or not asparagus at the store is fresh:
- the spears are dark green and shiny
- when you rub the spears they squeak
- the spears are straight, not bent
- the tips of the spears are tightly closed and either green or purple
- the cut ends of the spears should be closed and moist (not dry and pockmarked)
Nettle Soup with Asparagus
Serve a taste of spring with this savory and delicious nettle soup! Perfect for a Sunday brunch or a cozy evening meal, this recipe is the synergistic combination of two favorite spring plants.
What you’ll need…
- 5 tablespoons olive oil, divided
- 1 medium onion, diced
- 7 garlic cloves, minced
- 2 tablespoons curry powder
- 1 teaspoon cumin powder
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
- 1 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 bunch of asparagus (approximately 300 grams), cut into 1-inch pieces
- 1 (13.5 ounce) can of coconut milk
- 5 cups broth (bone broth, vegetable broth or even water)
- 150 grams of young fresh nettle leaves
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- more salt and pepper to taste (optional)
- dash of cream (optional)
- handful of mushrooms (morels, shiitakes, chanterelles, buttons, etc.), minced
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 1 garlic clove, minced
In a large saucepan heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil on medium heat. Once hot, add the onion and sauté until translucent. Add two more tablespoons of olive oil, wait a few moments for it to warm up. Add the garlic, curry powder, cumin powder, black pepper and salt. Sauté for one minute or until aromatic.
Add the asparagus and cook for 3-5 minutes or until it becomes bright green in color.
Add the coconut milk and broth (or water) and bring to a boil.
Add the fresh nettle leaves. Stir well. Cook for 5-7 minutes or until the asparagus is fairly soft.
Optional mushroom topping: While the soup is cooking you can make the optional mushroom topping. Heat the butter in a small saucepan. Add the garlic and sauté for 30 seconds or until fragrant. Add the minced mushrooms and cook until thoroughly done and tender. Set aside.
Once the asparagus is soft, turn off the heat on the soup. Add the lemon juice.
Using an immersion blender (or an upright blender) blend on high until thoroughly creamed. (If using an upright blender be sure to allow steam to escape while blending to avoid a big hot mess.)
Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve asparagus and nettle soup in bowls with a dash of cream (optional) and a couple spoonfuls of mushrooms (optional).
Yield: Makes approximately 3 quarts, which serves 6-8 people.
Now I’d love to hear from you!
Are nettles ready for harvest where you live?
What are your favorite ways to enjoy fresh nettles?
Let me know in the comments below.
- Helms, Steve, and A. Miller. “Natural Treatment of Chronic Rhinosinusitis.” Alternative Medicine Review: A Journal of Clinical Therapeutics 11, no. 3 (2006): 196–207. ↩
- Roschek, Bill, et al. “Nettle Extract (Urtica Dioica) Affects Key Receptors and Enzymes Associated with Allergic Rhinitis.” Phytotherapy Research 23, no. 7 (July 2009): 920–26. doi:10.1002/ptr.2763. ↩
- Kianbakht, Saeed, Farahnaz Khalighi-Sigaroodi, and Fataneh Hashem Dabaghian. “Improved Glycemic Control in Patients with Advanced Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus Taking Urtica Dioica Leaf Extract: A Randomized Double-blind Placebo-controlled Clinical Trial.” Clinical laboratory 59, no. 9-10 (2013): 1071-6. ↩
- Namazi, N, A T Esfanjani, J Heshmati, and A Bahrami. “The Effect of Hydro Alcoholic Nettle (Urtica Dioica) Extracts on Insulin Sensitivity and Some Inflammatory Indicators in Patients with Type 2 Diabetes: A Randomized Double-blind Control Trial.” Pakistan journal of biological sciences : PJBS 14, no. 15 (2011): 775-9. ↩
- Kraft, Diane, and Ara DerMarderosian. The A-Z guide to food as medicine. Boca Raton: CRC Press, Taylor & Francis Group, 2016. ↩
- Robinson, Jo. Eating on the wild side: the missing link to optimum health. New York: Little Brown & Co, 2014. ↩
- Ibid. ↩