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Nettle – from the underdog of the plant world to a nutritious delicacy

Nettle – from the underdog of the plant world to a nutritious delicacy

Heli Koskinen

Stinging nettle has been a somewhat underrated and underused plant. Nettle bushes can be found everywhere up North and nettle is generally considered a weed (and a nuisance). Nettle is perhaps the most known of its stinging leaves. Any Finn remembers from their childhood the feeling of accidentally burning themselves from nettle leaves while playing outside on a summer day – the memory of which doesn’t exactly increase our appreciation of the plant. However, there is a lot more to this plant than meets the eye. Nettle is in fact one of the healthiest and most nutritious plants found in the Nordic nature, “the Ugly Duckling” of the plant world.

Nettle in the Nordic culture

The health benefits of nettle have been known in the Nordic culture for a long time, though they might have been slightly forgotten in the mainstream. Luckily nettle has been regaining the recognition which it deserves over the last years. Nettle is in fact an exceptionally versatile plant to use both internally and externally. It is a delicious and nutritious addition in cooking and it really excels in soups, sauces, stews and pancakes. Nettle has also been used in traditional medicine as a cure for lung, stomach and urinary problems and even as an aphrodisiac. In the olden days, nettle was also used in grooming as people washed their hair with nettle water. The durable fibers of the stems have even been used in the same way as flax fibers to make nets and clothes. Gardeners can also find a lot of use in nettle, as it is an effective natural fertilizer and a pesticide for vegetable gardens or flowerbeds. Pretty impressive resume for a nuisance, don’t you think?

Where does nettle grow?

Nettle is not just common in Northern Europe but it can be found in many parts of the world. Nettle is widespread in rainy areas of the United States, Canada and Asia. Nettle needs moist and fertile soil to grow which is why it can often be found near human habitation and buildings, in cities and in the countryside. Nettle is also common along roadsides, ditches and gardens.

How to pick nettle?

The nettle sprouts and leaves are best to be picked in late spring or early summer before they bloom. Since the leaves are stinging, it is best to use protective gloves when picking them, though the most experienced (or daring) pickers can pick them barehanded. Nettle has spicules (kind of like hairs) which sting when touched. The spicules contain biochemical irritants such as acetylcholine, histamine, serotonin, formic acid, acetic acid, citric acid, folic acid, pantothenic acid, biotin and choline – so quite a cocktail to be careful of.

Nettle picking with protective gloves

Nettle is best to be picked with protective gloves to avoid the unpleasant stinging.

Nettle should only be picked from clean places. When picked in urban areas you should make sure that the nettle bushes you have your eye on are not along any dog walker’s routes. Nettle can be picked from the same place twice during one summer, in the beginning and at the end of the summer. Remember also to pick nettle seeds as they are the most nutritious part of nettle. Nettle seeds are best to be picked in July-August when they have reached a dark green color.

The nutritional benefits of nettle

Nettle is often compared to spinach due to their similar taste and use, but when it comes to nutritional content, nettle beats spinach with flying colors. Nettle is actually a real superfood, though it has been overlooked perhaps due to its status as an unwanted weed.

  • Protein: For a green vegetable, nettle contains plenty of protein (even 6,2 g) which is more than what milk contains (3,5 g).
  • Minerals: Nettle is also rich in fiber, calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, phosphorus, folate, silicon and zinc. Nettle is particularly rich in calcium and is therefore a good addition to vegetarian and vegan diets. Though spinach is usually considered a good source of iron, nettle contains four times more iron than spinach.
  • Vitamins: Nettle also contains 3–4 times more vitamin C than spinach (nettle: 175–200 mg/100 g, spinach: 45 mg/100 g). It also contains quite a lot of vitamins A, E and B.

The many ways of using nettle

In addition to having excellent nutritional values, nettle is also very versatile to use. Nettle can be used like spinach. It is an excellent addition to pies, sauces, pestos, stews, soups, pancakes and breads. It can also be used in smoothies and herbal teas.

Nettle pieNettle pie is full of iron, calcium and protein – and a delicious taste!

  • Fresh nettle leaves: Nettle leaves can be enjoyed as fresh if the leaves are mixed in a blender so that their stinging spicules are crushed. These fresh leaves can then be added for example to smoothies or green juices.
  • Parboiled nettle leaves: More common way to use nettle is to first parboil them which removes the stinging effect of the leaves. First rinse the nettles to remove dirt (and small insects), then chop them to smaller pieces and boil for 30 seconds. After parboiling the nettles can be added to foods or drinks. They can also be frozen for later usage.
  • Dried nettle leaves: Nettle leaves can also be dried and ground as powder. Nettle powder is a good base for green powders and herbal drinks, for example. Nettle powder is also an excellent nutritional supplement for those who train a lot, are pregnant or suffer from heavy menstrual bleeding.
  • Nettle seeds: Nettle seeds are the most nutritious part of nettle and definitely worth using. Nettle seeds can be added to almost any foods, such as porridge, muesli or granola, omelette or bread dough. A good daily dosage is 2 tablespoons. Nettle seeds can be used as fresh or they can be frozen or dried for later usage.

If you are not into picking and preparing the nettle leaves yourself or if you live in a place where nettles don’t grow, you can still enjoy all the wonderful benefits of this superplant. We have lots of ready-to-use nettle products in our selection, from nettle powders, herbal tea mixes and snack bars to supplements and cosmetics. Get to know the selection and find your favorites!

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