Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica, in the Urticaceae or nettle family) has an off-putting name, but it is actually a delicious and nutritious wild green. Sometimes called simply nettles, this short, scruffy herb grows about four feet high in moist areas near streams and lakes in nearly every part of the U.S. This plant is called stinging nettle for a reason: The stems and leaves are covered with short stiff hairs that act like microscopic hypodermic needles and inject formic acid into your skin on contact. Formic acid, the same compound that makes ant bites sting, deters herbivores from munching on the nettles by causing a mild skin irritation that feels a bit like the pins and needles of a “sleeping” limb and can last for an hour or so. Quick relief from the sting can be had by rubbing the skin with the leaves or juice of jewelweed (Impatiens capensis), plantain (Plantago spp.), or chickweed (Stellaria media).
Nettles can sometimes be found in local farmers’ markets, but if you’re harvesting your own, how do you do it painlessly? Some people recommend carefully grasping just the top of the leaves and bending them back on themselves to pluck them off the plant, but this is a very slow, tricky, and potentially risky method—there are often a few hairs on the top of the leaf, and hairs from the bottom can poke through and sting you anyway. It is much easier to use gardening gloves (or any gloves more than a few millimeters thick that will block the short hairs). If you happen upon some nettles in the wild and don’t have gloves with you, try using a plastic bag or two wrapped around your hand, which will keep most of the hairs away from your skin. The sting isn’t that painful and cannot be transferred to other areas of your skin like poison ivy, so it isn’t disastrous to get a few mild pricks.
Stinging nettle is best picked in the spring when the leaves are young, light green, and tender, but you can also collect just the tender tips later in the year. The plant resembles a large-leafed mint from far away because of its toothed, opposite leaves, but nettles don’t have the square stem that mints do and have hanging panicles of small green flowers. Look-alikes include horehounds (Ballota spp., which have a strong musky, minty smell, while nettles have little odor), deadnettle (Lamium maculatum, edible as well), figworts (Scrophularia spp., which have larger flowers), and Joe-pye weeds (Eupatorium spp., toxic in large doses but distinguishable by their three-whorled leaves). To be certain, you can always touch the leaves lightly to see if they sting you—no other plant in the U.S. has the same effect.
With all this talk of stinging, you may ask why you would want to put this plant in or on your body voluntarily. There are many reasons to use and consume stinging nettle, aside from how nutritious and delicious it is: Nettles are historically and scientifically proven to be an excellent remedy against allergies and a great general anti-inflammatory. The stinging hairs of the plant can easily be rendered harmless by boiling the leaves for five minutes or by making a tea out of them. Nettle tea is an effective remedy for general allergies and hay fever. You can apply a poultice of steeped, sting-free leaves to the scalp to promote hair growth or to eczema outbreaks to calm itching. Fresh leaves, with their stinging powers intact, can be used as a poultice on rheumatic joints for pain relief.
Nettles cooked into a soup or chopped finely and served as a potherb are excellent dishes and are both starting to show up in major restaurants like Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California. The leaves are very high in vitamin C, calcium, and iron (up to six times more than in spinach) and have a lovely, delicate taste when lightly blanched. It is best to use only the leaves for cooking, since the stems contain a lot of silica. If you have a big harvest, you can freeze leaves for later use, stockpiling these tasty nutritious greens all winter.