Learn how to identify, safely harvest, prepare, and preserve stinging nettle, plus ways to use it for food, natural medicine, and more!
Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica) is delicious and nutritious wild edible that may already be growing near you. (If not, you can also grow it as an outdoors potted plant.)
Not only is it a forager’s superfood, and a medicinal powerhouse for the herbalist’s apothecary, it also has its place upon the shelves of crafters. Stinging nettle stems can be turned into a fiber (this low effort nettle fiber video is excellent too!), and can also be used to make cordage. The leaves and roots are natural dyes and the plant can even be used to make fertilizer for your garden, or turned into rennet for making cheese!
What’s not to love about stinging nettle?
Well, mainly the stinging part!
Don’t worry – we’ll tell you how to avoid and deactivate the sting so you can forage without fear! Plus we have tips in case you accidentally have a run-in with the little hairs (trichomes) that cause all of the pain.
Can Pets Take Nettle?
Yes! According to the excellent book, Herbs for Pets, by Gregory Tilford and Mary Wullf, “nettle makes an excellent addition to food for animals who need extra trace minerals and vitamins in their diets, but not necessarily in huge, multivitamin doses.” They go on to mention that dried nettle can be sprinkled over the food of dogs and cats, and fed directly to herbivores. (Nettle tea is also a good rinse for itchy pets – see how to make below.) As always, check with your veterinarian for specific questions or concerns about your pet.
Identification Tips for Stinging Nettle
Here are some tips to help you identify stinging nettle:
Stinging Hairs (Trichomes)
First, stinging nettle is covered with tiny stinging hairs, or trichomes. These stingers are hollow little tubes that inject a mixture of natural chemicals, including histamine and formic acid, when you touch them. This causes a reaction that causes redness, burning, and itching.
(These hairs can be deactivated though, by cooking, steaming, drying, or crushing. More on that below.)
The dark green leaves grow opposite from each other and have serrated or deeply toothed edges, and are pointy at the tips.
They are often described as triangular, but younger nettle leaves may also be heart shaped (cordate).
You’ll often notice a purple tinge to the nettle leaves, especially when they’re younger. That’s perfectly normal.
The stems are square and hairy. The highest amount of stinging hairs are found on the stem, so handle that part carefully!
Stinging nettle is a tall plant, often growing 3 to 6 feet tall, or even taller, depending on where it’s growing.
The tiny flowers are white (or look greenish white) and are not showy at all. They hang down from the leaf axil (the part of the stem where the leaf develops).
What does the sting of stinging nettle feel like?
It depends on your skin sensitivity level, but in general we think a stinging nettle rash feels hot and prickly – pretty much like a bunch of tiny burny mini-stings happening all at once. It’s also a bothersome experience, because the uncomfortable sensation can last for hours and it’s not easy to ignore!
The dad here at Unruly Gardening finds that the irritation only lasts an hour or two and it actually makes his often-aching arm (from years of working in construction) feel better for a day. Those here with more sensitive skin find the irritation lasts about 6 to 12 hours if left completely untreated. (We’ll cover some treatment ideas below.)
The sting sounds scary, and while it’s not super fun, but it’s not as bad as it sounds. Be sure to wear gloves, and possibly long sleeves, and don’t let it stop you from foraging this nourishing plant!
Where to Find
Native to Europe, stinging nettle is an early spring green that has now naturalized all over the United States and North America.
You’ll find these prickly plants growing in dense patches in rich and moist areas, such as the banks of streams and creeks, damp woodland edges, and roadside ditches with moist soil. (As a foraging reminder: don’t gather plants that are growing right next to roads, or from areas that have been sprayed with herbicides or pesticides, to avoid harmful chemical exposure.)
Stinging nettles are an herbaceous (non-woody) perennial – so you should see the plant come back in the same spot year after year. It will emerge in the spring, grow tall, produce small inconspicuous flowers, then die back to the ground in the winter, only to return again with fresh new growth the following spring.
You could also grow Urtica dioica by seed in your garden, or as a potted plant kept outdoors, but if you do this, take care to keep them wrangled in. Over time nettles can grow out of control, which is why many areas in the US & Canada consider them a noxious weed and rank them as “high” on their invasive plant species lists.
Stinging Nettle Lookalikes
Stinging nettle doesn’t have any toxic lookalikes.
Wood Nettle (Laportea canadensis)
A main lookalike is Wood Nettle. Key identifiers for wood nettle are that some of the leaves are arranged alternately along the stem (instead of stinging nettle’s opposite arrangement) and the leaves aren’t quite so narrow. They will also sting!
Homestead Honey has a great article about foraging for wood nettles we recommend if you’d like to see more photos of this plant.
This information at Illinois Wildflowers is helpful as well: Wood Nettle Laportea canadensis Nettle family (Urticaceae)
Purple Dead Nettle (Lamium purpureum)
Stinging nettle and purple dead nettle don’t really look that much alike, but there is often confusion between the two mainly because of the name, and because they coming into prime foraging season around the same time, in early spring.
Purple dead nettle (Lamium purpureum) is shorter, growing only 16 to 18 inches tall. It’s hairy, but it has absolutely no sting at all. It also develops purple flowers which are nothing like stinging nettle’s inconspicuous flowers.
For a lot more detail about purple dead nettle and links to ways to use it, please see our article:
5 Remedies for Nettle Stings
Once nettle is dried, cooked, or blanched, it will no longer sting you.
However, sometimes, in spite of our best efforts, we might brush against fresh nettles and get stung by them.
Never fear! We have several remedies for you to try:
1. If you’re near home, wait 10 minutes, then wash the area well with soap and water.
2. Some have good luck using duct tape to “pull” the stinging hairs from the skin.
3. Aloe vera gel can be applied to soothe the burning sensation.
4. An old remedy is to crush the leaf of nearby dock plants and apply the juice. Plantain or violet leaves also work in a similar way. (In the field, mash by chewing or smashing with a rock, and apply the juice.)
5. Make a thin paste of kaolin (or another cosmetic clay such as French green clay or rose clay) plus water and rub over the stinging area. Allow to air dry before rinsing off.
Equipment You’ll Need
To harvest stinging nettle, equip yourself with:
- a pair of sharp scissors or pruning shears,
- a basket,
- and a pair of heavy-duty gloves.
Don’t try using disposable plastic gloves or dollar-store thin garden gloves- they’re no protection at all, and if you try to use them, you’ll quickly end up with stinging fingers!
Long sleeves are also a good idea, as are heavy pants and closed-toe shoes, if you’re really about to go after a patch.
When to Harvest Nettle
Harvest nettles when they first start sprouting in early spring, and ideally before they begin to bloom. This could be anywhere from March to May, depending on where you live. Other forageables growing around the same time include: violets, dandelions, redbud, and chickweed.
Inspect your nettle patch: you want green, fresh, whole leaves that don’t have any signs of wilt, disease, or insect damage.
It’s not recommended to use nettle for food or herbal remedy purposes after it’s begun flowering. At that time, the leaves start producing silicate crystals which can irritate your kidneys and urinary system. (Drying or cooking nettle will not destroy these crystals.)
However, it’s fine to use flowering nettle for non-food things like plant fertilizer, skin care products, fiber, cordage, and such.
Tips for Collecting Nettle
Using your scissors or pruning shears, position the blades on the stem to clip off the tender top of the stalk. This means you should aim to snip off the top 4-6 leaves. Leaves and stalks lower down on the plant can be tougher and more fibrous.
When clipping, position your basket underneath the plant, pulling the tip over with your scissors. This way, when clipped, the tip falls directly into your basket without you ever having to touch the plant. (This is how we collect nettle without gloves all the time.)
If you miss your basket, you can gently pick your nettles up with your scissors, or with thickly gloved hands. Avoid bare-handed contact if you don’t want to flirt with the possibility of being stung!
If you snip off the tip above a leaf node, the nettle will pull the same trick as a plant like basil – where there once was one stalk, two will grow back! Continually coming back and harvesting from these new stalks once they get big enough will result in more and more stalks dividing from the main plant, and can extend your harvest period.
How to Preserve & Store Nettle
You’ve harvested stinging nettles! Now for the next question – what can you do with them?
There are three routes you can go here: you can dry them, freeze them, or use them fresh! Frozen and fresh nettles mostly overlap in their uses, while dry nettles are more used for things like tea or medicinal preparations. Read on to find out more!
1. How to Dry Stinging Nettle
You can dry your fresh nettles to use later. Going through the drying process causes nettles to lose that irritating sting. They can, however, still poke you, and this can be irritating still to those with very sensitive skin. A pair of gloves- not so heavy as the pair you wear when you harvested the nettles fresh- can help prevent uncomfortable pokes and slivers while handling the dried nettles.
Dried nettles can be used to make tea, or you can toss them into broth. They can also be powdered, which can be used as is in things like smoothies, or put into capsules to take. You can even use dried nettles to make a hair rinse! (See below, under the section on making nettle vinegar.)
Method 1: Dry on a rack or screen
To dry nettles on a drying rack or screen, simply spread them out in a single layer over the surface. You could instead use a clean dishtowel or paper towels to air dry them on. Make sure the leaves have good air circulation, and that the area they’re drying in is warm, dry, and not exposed to direct sunlight. This can take anywhere from 3 days to over a week, depending on your climate and room temperature.
Method 2: Dry in bundles
If you want to take advantage of vertical space, you can bundle up your nettles and dry them in the air. Form small bundles (while wearing gloves!) of stalks and tie tightly with durable twine or ribbon. The stalks will shrink as they dry, and ties that are too loose can end up dropping their bundles on the ground. Nobody wants to step on half-dried nettles!
Hang the bundles somewhere warm, dry, and with good air circulation. This method tends to dry things a little slower than drying on a rack: check for dryness starting about a week after hanging, and check on a weekly basis. Dried leaves will easily crumble, and stalks should be brittle and easily snapped. Everything should still be green, and not any shade of brown.
Method 3: Dry in the dehydrator
To dry nettles in the dehydrator, you may want to pluck the leaves free from the stalks for ease of handling, discarding the stalks and keeping the leaves. Alternatively, you can try dehydrating the whole nettle tip. Lay nettle in a single layer on the dehydrator racks. Set your dehydrator as low as it can go- this is likely its ‘herb’ setting, if your dehydrator is the type to have named settings like that (95-115° F if it’s not)- and start checking after about 12 hours of dehydrating. It may take a few hours longer to fully dry.
Storing Dried Nettle
Make sure the nettles are fully dry before storing. Dry nettle leaves will easily crumble when ready to put up. The leaves should be green, and not yellow or brown. Stalks will be easily snapped.
Dried nettles are best stored in things such as a brown paper bag or glass jars with lids. Keep somewhere that’s cool, dark, and dry. Avoid storing in direct sunlight, wet conditions, or very hot locations: all these things can shorten shelf life.
Shelf Life of Dried Nettle
The shelf life of dried nettle is about 1 year, or as long as the herb is a nice green color with a good scent. If it fades to brown or yellow, or smells bad, it’s time to compost the nettle and collect a new batch!
2. Cook & Freeze Nettle
You can blanche your fresh-picked nettles, deactivating the sting, and freeze them to use later in other recipes. Then you can use this nutritious wild vegetable whenever you want throughout the year!
Frozen, blanched stinging nettles can be used in any recipes that call for cooked spinach, replacing the spinach in question 1-for-1 without needing to adjust the amount. It can be added to things such as soups, stews, casseroles, stir-fries, and various pasta dishes. It has a very mild flavor, and a good tenderness.
Cooked nettles aren’t used in medicinal preparations, but they are used in edible ones. If you only want to make medicinal projects with nettle, then you would prepare them by drying, not cooking, unless your specific project says otherwise.
How to Blanche Stinging Nettles
You will need:
- Fresh stinging nettles
- A large pot
- A large bowl
- Optional: salt
- To blanche nettles, start by bringing a large pot of water to a boil. Some people salt the water first: we don’t tend to. Using the tongs, carefully add the stinging nettles to the boiling water.
- Boil the nettles for 4 minutes (some foragers prefer a shorter boil time of only 1 minute, experiment to see which you prefer), using the tongs to stir, shift, and dunk any poking-up bits of nettle as needed. They will shift in color to a bright, vivid green. They will also have a distinct aroma: some find this savory and pleasant (we think it smells like savory stir-fry), while others might not enjoy it so much!
- While the stinging nettles are boiling, prepare an ice bath. Add cold water and ice together in your bowl, and set nearby so it’s ready to use.
- After 4 minutes are up, use the tongs to remove the nettles from the boiling water, and dunk them in the ice bath to stop the cooking process. (The water the nettles were boiled in can be saved as a tea or a vegetable broth for soups and the like- it can also be diluted and used to water plants. Don’t just pour it down the sink- it’s useful!)
- Remove the nettles from the ice bath, and use your hands to squeeze out as much water as possible. They’ll end up forming a sort of ball in your hands, sticking to one another.
- After that, carefully try to separate the stinging nettles. This is easiest done by grasping the stalks, and, taking your time, gently teasing them apart.
I still see hairs on my nettles!
Once cooked, nettles no longer can sting you. They’re safe to eat and handle.
That being said, the hairs that cause that sting haven’t vanished into thin air: they’re still there, and that’s not something to worry about! The cooking process has destroyed the plant’s ability to sting you. The hairs still visible on the stems won’t hurt you.
If you’re still worried, then trust in your hands: as you handle the cooked nettles, you’re not getting stung by those little hairs, right? (If you are, they haven’t been blanched fully. Make sure the stinging nettles are blanched long enough, and that you don’t leave any odd bits of stalk or leaf poking out the water where it might escape the blanching process!) No stinging on your hands means there won’t be stinging in your throat. The hairs are harmless, now, and the proof is in your fingers!
You can chop the blanched nettles if desired, or leave them as they are. Either way, separate out the nettles into individual portions of your desired size. Seal these in freezer-safe containers, label, and place in the freezer.
Depending on your freezing method, your nettles could be good from anywhere from 6 months to an entire year. If you notice your nettles tasting like freezer burn or large amounts of ice crystals forming where they shouldn’t, then toss them.
3. Use Right Away!
You don’t have to put up your nettles right after harvesting them- there’s a ton you can do with them fresh, too!
Stinging nettles can keep in your refrigerator- unwashed, sometimes with a damp paper towel tucked in with them- for 1-3 days. Any slimy, molding, withering, or strongly wilted nettles should be discarded, and not used. Remember to be careful when handling: the nettle stings are still there, enduring in your refrigerator until the nettles are dried or cooked!
All stinging nettle recipes that are meant to be ingested will be cooked first: see the instructions on how to blanche stinging nettles above. This neutralizes the stinging hairs. You don’t need to freeze them to use them, though! Blanched nettles are used in stir fries, can be sautéed as a cooked green, used in quiches… or even cheesecakes!
Blanched nettles can be used as a 1-for-1 substitute for cooked spinach in any recipe. The mild taste is very agreeable, and can take on the flavors of the things the nettles are cooked with.
Things to Make with Stinging Nettle
Looking for some specific projects and recipes? Here are some of our favorite ways to use stinging nettle!
A Savory Nettle Favorite
For tasty food treats that use stinging nettle, we have two options for you to try: a savory egg muffin recipe packed with a delicious mix of onions, mushrooms, and blanched nettles, AND a sweet mint chocolate mini cheesecake recipe that uses pureed stinging nettles to give it a lovely green color!
Both of these recipes are simple and easy to make, and the only foraged ingredient they require is stinging nettles: the rest of the ingredients are obtained easily from the store.
Here’s the link to those recipes on our site:
Nettle Herbal Uses
On the herbal medicine side of things, stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) has a lot going for it!
It’s a nutrient powerhouse, and the infusion is often given for nourishment, adrenal exhaustion, and support for your kidneys. Nettle is also a stellar herb for those with seasonal allergies (it helps lower histamine), is used in hair care products to keep hair healthy.
How to Make Strong Fresh Nettle Infusion
This is a concentrated way to get the benefits of nettle. Start slow, and if it’s too strong for your tastes, reduce the infusing time. (To make nettle tea, which is milder than the strong infusion, steep 1 to 2 teaspoons of dried leaves in a cup of just boiled water for 15 minutes, drink 1 to 4 cups per day.)
Take a handful of fresh nettle leaves (about 1 ounce) and place in a quart jar. Cover with boiling water, steep overnight. (After 1 to 2 hours of steeping at room temperature, move the container to the refrigerator for the rest of the infusing time.) Strain. Try sipping on this infusion over the next day or two, storing in the fridge between uses.
Nettle tea/infusion is a diuretic (makes you pee more than usual), and those with really dry constitutions may find it too drying. In that case you can combine it with violet leaves to help offset the drying effect.
Stinging Nettle Tincture Recipe
Nettle tincture is often used for allergies, and herbalist jim mcdonald has some great information about using it for adrenal exhaustion in this Rootstalk Plant Walk video.
For this tincture, we’re going to combine fresh chopped nettle leaf with 151 proof Everclear or 75% alcohol. (If using dried nettle, use 100 proof or 50% alcohol.) Do NOT use rubbing alcohol, or isopropyl alcohol for tinctures.
There are two formulas to go by:
- Folk method (what we do here at Unruly Gardening): 1 part fresh chopped nettle to 2 parts Everclear 151 (75% alcohol). So if you have 1 cup fresh chopped nettle, blend it with 2 cups alcohol. Or what we usually do is fill a jar halfway with chopped fresh nettle and then pour alcohol in, until the jar is filled. (If using dried nettle, use 1 part dried nettle to 5 parts of 100 proof alcohol.)
- Standardized herbalist formula: 1:2 75% ETOH. This means you’ll use 100 grams of fresh herb and 200 ml of 75% alcohol. (Or if using dried nettle, use a 1:5 ratio, or 100 grams dried herb and 500 ml of 100 proof alcohol.)
Combine in a jar and infuse for at least 1 month, shaking periodically. Strain through cheesecloth into a new jar. Allow the tincture to settle for a day or two and carefully pour off the top portion, leaving behind any sludgy layer that may have settled to the bottom. Start with 1 to 2 drops at a time, a few times a day, and work up to 0.5 to 2 ml, 1 to 3 times daily. (In case you’re wondering, like I did in the past – stinging nettle tincture will not sting you when you take it!)
Vinegar is especially helpful for drawing minerals and other beneficial compounds from highly nutritious herbs such as nettle. Stinging nettle vinegar can be used to make homemade dressings and vinaigrette, and it can also be diluted with 4 to 6 times as much water, then used as a hair rinse after shampooing your hair. The vinegar will remove buildup, help with flakiness, and nourish your scalp.
To make it, you’ll need:
- 1 cup chopped fresh nettles (or 1/4 to 1/2 cup dried nettles)
- 1 1/2 to 2 cups vinegar
Place the nettles in a jar and cover with vinegar. Stir. Cap with a non-metal lid (or put plastic wrap between the lid and the jar to prevent corrosion), then tuck in a cabinet to infuse for 3 to 4 weeks, shaking occasionally. Strain through cheesecloth. If you used fresh nettle, we suggest storing the vinegar in the fridge and using it up sooner, rather than later. Dried nettle has much less water content and the infused vinegar should last around one year.
We hope you enjoyed this article! We adore stinging nettles around here, and you will likely see plenty more nettle recipes and projects on this site in the future!
References & Further Reading
Cech, Richo. Making Plant Medicine. Williams, OR: Horizon Herbs, 2000. Print.
Foret, Rosalee de la and Emily Han. Wild Remedies. Carlsbad, CA. Hay House, 2020. Print.
Groves, Maria Noel. Grow Your Own Herbal Remedies. North Adams, MA. Storey Publishing, 2019. Print.
Tilford, Gregory L. and Mary L. Wulff. Herbs for Pets. Mount Joy, PA: Fox Chapel Publishing, 2009. Print.
Our articles are for information and idea-sharing only. While we aim for 100% accuracy, it is solely up to the reader to provide proper identification. Be sure to seek out local foraging classes and plant walks, and invest in mushroom and foraging guides suitable for the area you live in, since some wild foods are poisonous, or may have adverse effect.