During my youth growing up in north-western BC, my first physical encounter with stinging nettle was while ambling along a creek side close to where my friends Joy and June lived. Although I was still in elementary school, I had some knowledge of the native plants that grew in our region thanks to my father, who was a naturalist at heart. Our family had encountered mature nettle plants when we were harvesting wild berries in the fall, and were cautioned to stay clear of them, but I had to that point never seen them in their early stages of life. That was one prickly encounter that lodged deep in my memory! All I knew was that nettles stung and should be avoided at all costs. I had no idea until I was in my middle to late teens that nettles could be eaten, used for medicine, or for fibre.
I recall the first time I harvested nettles and how my sister Sheila was careful to point out that we should wear long sleeves and rubber gloves when we went foraging, and processing fresh nettles—a lesson I have carried with me since. That first meal of sautéed nettle, first bowl of nettle soup, and first cup of nettle tea, set the stage for future culinary adventures.
I have a small patch of nettles growing under the plum tree in my front yard, a few years ago when Sheila’s grandson Cooper was visiting, he noticed them. “Auntie Deb” he asked, “why do you have nettles growing in your garden?” I responded, “they remind me of your Nana.” He was about 10 years old at the time, and totally understood what I meant.
The humble nettle is a powerful spring tonic loaded with vitamins and minerals. It makes a delicious tea and can be used in the place of greens in most recipes. It has medicinal qualities as well. In contemporary herbal medicine, stinging nettle is known to have antiproliferative, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, analgesic, anti-infectious, hypotensive, and antiulcer characteristics, as well as the ability to prevent cardiovascular disease, in all parts of the plant (leaves, stems, roots, and seeds).
Historical Use of Nettles
Nettle has been used as a natural remedy for its healing properties for over 2000 years. However, it was not until the 1990s that its medicinal potential was fully appreciated by Western medicine, beginning with the identification of the chemical structure and pharmacological qualities of the principal chemically active compounds.
Throughout history, stinging nettle was used by the North American First Nations people as a treatment for acne and eczema, for diarrhea, intestinal worms, and urinary tract infections. The tender tops were cooked for food and are an excellent source of chlorophyll, carotene and Vitamin C, as well as magnesium, iron, and other antioxidants. And today, it continues to be used for multiple remedies, including allergies, eczema, iron deficiency, and so on. The W̱SÁNEĆ people used nettles for many things, including processing into twine that was used to sew the fibre mats they are famous for. (See Saltwater People by Dave Elliott, pg. 47, for an illustration).
The long stem fibres of nettle have been used by both first nations and Europeans for cord and fishing line. During World War I, the fibres were used to make sailcloth in Germany, Scotland and Norway, and the German army used nettle fibre as a substitute for cotton during the wartime shortage of textiles. Even the Vikings understood their value, as nettle fibres were discovered during the Oseberg find—a Norwegian Viking burial ship dated around 834 AD. Nettle fabric has also been found in burial sites dating from the Bronze Age. Ancient Egyptians used infusions of nettle for arthritis, and the Romans carried it with them for stimulating circulation for tired legs. Hippocrates (460-377 B.C.) and his followers reported 61 remedies using nettle.
In researching this article, I discovered a plethora of information about nettle and its multitude of uses, and it is truly humbling. There are scientific articles, YouTube videos, recipes (including a complete description on “Allrecipes”), crop management guidelines, links to nettle festivals, and information on all kinds of uses for the All Mighty Nettle.
Our friends on Galiano Island celebrate the Nettle annually: this spring marks the 16th year of “Nettlefest.” The 2023 event runs from April 14 to 16.
In London England they celebrate in the month of June. Check it out.
In Dorset they hold nettle eating contests where the objective is to eat as many raw nettles as you possibly can.
Cooking with Nettles
Here on the Mayne Island we prefer our nettles prepared in ways that dissolve the sting. And April is the perfect time to harvest wild nettles! You want tender young shoots—do not harvest nettles that are flowering.
Don’t know how to cook with nettles? Try substituting lightly sautéed nettles for spinach, kale, or even basil. Below is a recipe that you might want to try out this spring.
Nettle and Honey Cake with Almond Whipped Cream
This subtly sweet and down-to-earth cake is a great introduction to the world of the edible nettle and is possibly even better the next day once the almond whipped cream has had more time to soak into the cake.
- 2 big handfuls of young nettle leaves, washed (wear rubber gloves when handling)
- ½ cup (113 g) butter
- 1 cup (220 g) sugar
- 3 eggs
- ½ cup (125ml) honey
- 2 cups (300 g) flour
- 2 tsp baking soda
- 3dl (1 ¼ cup) heavy cream
- 1 Tb sugar
- ¼ tsp almond extract
Preheat the oven to 150º C / 300° F. Grease and line two 8-inch (20 cm) round cake tins.
In a saucepan, boil water and add the nettles. Simmer for 4-5 minutes. Drain the nettles and blend with a hand blender. Set aside to cool.
In a food mixer, cream the butter and sugar together. Add the eggs, one at a time, and whip for a couple of minutes. Add the honey and nettle mixture and continue to whip until well mixed.
In a separate bowl, combine the flour and baking soda. Add this to the rest of the mixture and continue to mix until everything is well blended. The batter will be slightly stiff.
Pour the batter evenly into the two prepared cake tins. Bake for 30-35 minutes. Check the center of the cake with a toothpick after 30 minutes and continue baking if the toothpick does not come out clean. The cake has some spring to it and can be hard to predict if it is done just by touching the center. The toothpick will do the trick. When cooked, remove the cakes and set aside to cool for 10 minutes or so. After, place on a wire rack and cool completely.
In a bowl, add the heavy cream, sugar and almond extract and whip until it forms stiff peaks.
Assemble the cake by spreading some of the whipped cream over the top of one of the cakes. Place the other cake on top, and spread the rest of the whipped cream over the sides and top. You can serve it plain or with fresh fruits and/or edible flowers.
Serve immediately, or place in the refrigerator until ready to serve. It can stay for a couple of days in the refrigerator. Enjoy!
Sharing Nettle Tips
There are at least 101 known uses for nettles, and we want to hear about how you use them. Do you have favourite way of preparing nettles? How do you protect yourself while harvesting? Do you have tips on how to preserve young tender nettles? Our team is ready to share their cumulative years of knowledge with you! Leave a comment, or email email@example.com.