Guide for Foraging the Superfood Nettle

Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) is a delicious, vitamin- and nutrient-rich culinary herb, high in protein and great in abundance. Nettles are commonly foraged edibles due to their nutritional composition, their benefit to vegans seeking more protein and their similarity to spinach. Nettles can also be found most of the year, though are at their most palatable between April and early July.

These delicious little plants have been used for centuries for ailments as far-ranging as arthritis to urinary tract infections. Found in Europe, Asia, North America, and Northern to sub-Saharan Africa, nettles have found their way into almost everyone’s cookbook, from nettle pesto to nettle porridge.

In this article we’ll explore foraging nettles in more detail and look at the best ways to protect ourselves from their sting!

Foraging Nettle

Nettles are often considered a weed, which means there’s no restriction on foraging these wonderfully beneficial herbs. It should be noted that ‘weed’ is not an official class of plant — it’s a label ascribed to plants with undesirable qualities based on the perspective of gardeners.

Nettles grow and spread quickly and tend to outnumber other plants in a garden. Nettle leaves have venom-filled hairs called trichomes which are hollow. The trichomes act as hypodermic needles, injecting various chemicals into the surface of the skin such as histamine and formic acid, causing a burning sensation and irritation when it encounters skin. Interestingly, this unpleasant stinging sensation caused by nettles is both an irritant as well as being anti-inflammatory, so not all bad!

Plants are very much alive, communicating among themselves various hazards, such as being cut down or a lack of sunlight. Additionally, growing evidence suggests that plants may even see and physically feel. Nettles with their high nutritional content have employed a strategy for protection through their sting, though it’s only partly effective. During the food shortages of World War II, in many parts of Europe, people turned to nettles for soup and stews to battle the shortages. Today, nettle leaves are regularly dried to make a thick deeply nutritious herbal tea, as well as being brewed into beers and alcohols.

So don’t avoid foraging for this wonderful herb because of the sting! When foraging the best quality nettle:

  • Ensure you properly identify the plant. Nettle leaves are heart-shaped or egg-shaped, which are serrated with pointed tips. This differs from bramble leaves which are often near nettles. Nettle leaves are arranged oppositely along the stems and have prominent veins from the middle of the leaf to the edges. Nettle plants can also grow up to 4 ft (1.2 m).
  • Look for nettle in moist, fertile soil near riverbanks, streams or forest edges. Nettle thrives in nitrogen-rich soil.
  • Harvest young nettle plants in the spring when they are tender and less fibrous.
  • Use scissors, gardening shears or your hands to cut off the top few inches of the plant, including the tender leaves and stems before they flower. Harvesting plants that have already flowered will mean the nettle is tougher and has more of a bitter flavour. But they are still medicinal!
  • Place harvested nettle in a breathable bag or basket to prevent wilting.
  • Once harvested, the stinging hairs must be neutralised before consumption. This can be done by blanching, cooking, drying, freezing or completely crushing the leaves in a food processor.

Nettles have a long growing season from early spring to late autumn, and as previously inferred, have a fresh, spinach-like taste when cooked.

Treating Nettle Stings

The uncomfortable nettle sting often discourages many from foraging this wonderfully beneficial herb. Though most forage nettle with gloves, it’s common for a nettle to inadvertently sting the wrists or legs when foraging.

Fortunately, nature provides its own antidote to the sting with plantain and dock, two common roadside plants that often grow near nettle.

Plantain (Plantago) is commonly found in lawns, gardens and roadside verges where nettles grow. This plantain is not related to the plantain fruit, Musa paradisiaca. The plantain plant is known for its broad, ribbed leaves and distinctive seed spikes. Both broadleaf plantain (Plantago major) and narrowleaf plantain (Plantago lanceolata) species possess potent medicinal properties.

Plantain leaves contain compounds such as mucilage, tannins and allantoin, which impart anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial and wound-healing properties. When applied topically to nettle stings, plantain helps to neutralise the sting’s chemicals, reduce inflammation and promote skin healing. It requires no preparation to gain the medicinal effects — pluck a fresh leaf, crush it between the fingers to release the juices and apply it directly to the affected area. Plantain’s cooling and soothing effects provide rapid relief from nettle-related discomfort, as well as working on bee and wasp stings, poison ivy (Toxicodendron) or other allergens causing itching, redness and swelling.

When foraging for plantain to treat nettle stings, look for plants growing in clean, pesticide-free areas away from roadsides or other sources of pollution. Choose leaves that are fresh and vibrant, preferably from younger plants, as they tend to contain higher concentrations of active compounds.

You can also create a poultice by mashing plantain leaves into a paste and applying it to the affected area, securing it in place with a clean bandage or a first-aid medical adhesive tape, such as micropore.

Dock (Rumex crispus), also known as curly dock or broadleaf dock, is also suggested as a remedy for nettle stings due to its astringent properties. The leaves of dock plants contain compounds that help reduce inflammation and soothe irritated skin. However, though dock is rich in quercetin, which has antihistaminic properties, it doesn’t possess compounds that address the other chemicals that nettle injects into the skin surface, such as formic acid. Additionally, dock requires careful preparation and application to be effective. The bitter leaves must be crushed or chewed to release their juices before being applied directly to the affected area. While dock may provide some relief, its effectiveness can vary greatly from person to person.

Ribwort plantain (Plantago lanceolata)

Broadleaf dock plant


It can be a bit intimidating, foraging for the first time, especially where there is a risk of sting. But wearing gloves to protect your hands, while keeping plantain in your back pocket, will ensure your nettle foraging experience is enjoyable!

There are a great many culinary herbs that are a bit intimidating if you don’t have the right skills but these skills are easy to obtain when studying a Naturopathic Diploma in Herbal Medicine at CNM.

By Charlee Martin


Wohlleben, P. (2021). Plants Feel Pain and Might Even See. [online] Nautilus. Available at:

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