Rachel Lambert: forager, author, guide

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.

8 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

    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.

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