Rachel Lambert: forager, author, guide
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When NOT to Eat Stinging Nettles

You may know, that I rate Stinging Nettles (Urtica dioica) highly. I believe they are one of our most nutritious greens in the UK alongside the goosefoot family which includes Fat Hen (Chenopodium album), Good King Henry (Chenopodium bonus-henricus) and Oraches (Atriplex patula and Atriplex prostrata).

Stinging Nettles are common and easy to identify, so what's not to like?!

I have other blogs that include recipes using nettles, and further nettle recipes in my wild food foraging book so here I wanted to focus on something different - when not to pick and eat them. They are not like shell-fish (only eat when there's an 'r' in the month), though there are some general guidelines that will help you pick and eat the best, edible nettles.

Here's just 4 times it is good not to pick nettles for food.

1. Don't pick Stinging Nettles when in Flower

The flowers on Stinging Nettles are like catkins; little tendrils of flowers dropping down from the stems, they tend to be green or yellowy-green in colour, so not always obvious to spot. This signifies a change in this nutritious plant, a change that is of benefit to butterflies and moths, though not to humans. At this stage it is best to quote John Wright (from his Hedgerow book) as he says it so well and thoroughly;

'At the first sign of flowers you must stop picking. The plant will now start producing cystoliths - microscopic rods of calium carbonate - which can be absorbed by  the body where they will mechanically interfere with kidney function.'

Well said John. So we' ve been told.

2. Avoid polluted sites

This should be common sense. Nettle have long roots to draw up nutriton and normally thrive in healthy and nitrogen rich soil, though do a little research and be sure you're picking from areas as free from pollutants as possible. Of course pollutatants can also be air-borne, so picking away from busy roadsides is recommended too.

3. Avoid when leave are tinged with purple

Sometimes the leaves of stinging nettles are tinged purple. This need not be a problem, nor a reason to avoid that particular patch, though it tends to signify that the plant is tired or stressed in some way, which can make the leaves a little bitter. Something to consider.

4. When you don't have gloves or have lots of exposed skin

We've all done it, or know someone who's been badly stung by nettles. Many of us are also tempted to pick delicious looking nettle leaves, even though our gloves are miles away in a forgotten cupboard. Thick sleeves can be used as a substitute for gloves (wearing over your hands), though know that nettles also have a habit of finding bare skin and innocently brushing themselves against you. A nettle sting doesn't have to be problem; the sting brings blood to the skin's surface, thus stimulating blood flow. Though too many stings are sometimes too much to bare. Consider waiting; the nettles continue strong, and return every year.

I'd love to show and teach you more about Stinging Nettles, including recipe ideas, find out more on my Wild Food Foraging Courses.

16 comments on “When NOT to Eat Stinging Nettles”

  1. i picked what i hope are nettles and made some nettle tea but i am now nervous and dont know if they are infact nettles as they are slightly different in shape than the ones in your images can u pls email me back so i can send u a pic, as ive made the nettle tea anf stored it in my fridge my email is sean74whittle@gmail.com
    i dont want to risk drinking this tea i have made just in case they aint nettles so if u can email me i will foward u a pic of what i believe are nettles many thanks.

    1. Hi Sean, glad I could answer via email. You may want to attend a foraging course with a teacher near you to help you learn more about foraging in a safe way.

  2. I know I won't receive this in time, but it will be good to know. I've cooked with nettles before, as I'm a chef and we had gardeners at the inn and they grew things and foraged for me and brought things in. I just ordered some from a purveyor, (years later) and they just don't look right. I would have thought they went to seed; as they have a millions tiny, green, wasabi-like seseme seeds falling off of them! But the leaves are very small, and they are all in tight cluster, almost like pot plants!!! Now I'm guessing they sent me "baby nettles" picked them immature, or are trying to grow micro and charge a lot. So now, i have stems, tiny leaves, and a millions green seeds!!
    Any advice??????
    AA in New England

    1. Hi Alan, oh, that doesn't sound great! There are lots of different types of nettles, so the size does vary. However, it does sound like you've been sold seeded nettles and not a good deal. If they are seeds you can use them, if they are flowers, you can't. Actually, flowering nettle plants shouldn't be used - not good for human consumption. HOWEVER the seeds are good to use and can be dried and then used too. The seeds only come on female plants, they are a little 3-D in their shape. Maybe a basket maker/string maker can use the fibres from the stems?! I hope that helps for now.

  3. Hi Rachel! I have seen your comments about not eating nettles in flower. Thanks. I have just picked some in the flower. Would this actually kill you if you ate it? Can nettles ever be mistaken for something this is fatal? I am new to foraging so I am a little nervous.
    Best wishes
    Ruth

    1. Hi Ruth, it won't kill you, just not good for you, so no point in eating them. What area are you in? I highly recommend attending a foraging course and spending some time with a professional forager. That's what we do - help people with these questions which I can do properly in person.

  4. Hi Rachel, I am so glad I stumbled across this blog. My name is Denny. I live in Washington State USA on a place called Camano Island. I am getting ready to go out and weed my garden today. Running a couple months behind thanks to Covid. I have some nettles that are competing with my Raspberries and Blueberries. I grew up being the only one other than my father who loved nettles, and spinach of course. I thought to myself heck I'll harvest the nettles. I never knew or thought about them flowering.(it's been 40yrs) We always just gathered them, threw them in a pot of boiling water and served them. They were great as a side to Steak and potatoes. Also were great with seafood, Add a little butter and their a great compliment to steamed clams. Add to oysters on a half shell, with butter and bacon crumbs, bake and Voilà, you have delightful rendition of Oysters Rockefeller. If I want them to return next year should I cut them at the ground instead of yanking them out?

    1. Hi Denny,
      Lovely to hear from you and your nettle stories. You probably know it's quite hard to get rid of nettles. I'd leave the dead stems and obviously let them seed and disperse their seeds, then observe the young growth going up around them. Perhaps you can just cut the dead stems then?!

  5. Hi Rachel,

    I order Stinging Nettle online to make infusions and this last batch is so bitter I can't drink it. I often toss it into soups and sauces as well but now I'm concerned that it could be unsafe to consume. Do you have any thoughts?

    1. Sorry Leslie, I can't help, I can only suggest you contact the seller. I can speculate, but don't know the product.

  6. My nettle patch has gone to seed already. Is there anything I can use them for now? I know they’re good for the compost, but was hoping to use them in some way. Thanks!

    1. Are they seeding or flowering? You can use the seeds (on the female plants) as a sprinkle or in foods. Though not the flowers.

  7. Regarding the advice to not eat nettles when flowering, does this also apply to making tea from them? I just made a cup before reading this blog and the flowers made the tea quite sweet so I was going to do that again. I have an (admittedly fairly old) book on edible and medicinal plants which says to gather the plants "at flowering time" for tea, but does say before flowering for eating.

    1. Hi Jennifer, are they referring to dead nettles or stinging nettles re flowering time for tea? It would make sense for dead nettles. Maybe contact the author?! Otherwise picking at flowering time doesn't make sense to me. I don't know everything, but flowers means it isn't absorbable re nutrition - that's how I understand it.

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