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Stinging Nettles

Wildcrafting for Health

Many Wisconsinites have had the experience of walking through the woods and brushing against a plant that stung them. Usually standing about waist high, the stinging nettle plant has tiny, hair-like needles covering the tops and bottoms of its leaves and all sides of its squared stem. Wherever moist soil is plentiful in the state, stinging nettle abounds. The hairs, called trichomes, act like hypodermic needles when they are touched, injecting histamine and other chemicals that produce a stinging sensation.

Most people are less familiar with the plant’s 2,000-year history of use as both medicine and food. The wild plant is loaded with vitamins, minerals and protein, making it a favorite of outdoor survivalists.

As a food source, the leaves of a very young plant, shorter than kneelevel, should be gathered before it flowers. Wearing gloves, gather leaves from the same plant a few times, because the plant will grow two new leaf stems where the leaves have been removed. Consistent pruning will keep a nettle patch producing for months longer. Nettle leaves should not be harvested after the plant has flowered, and shaded plants are preferred.

To neutralize the stingers, the plant should be boiled, dried or wilted over a fire. It can then be dried and stored for later use in a paper bag. Unlike some survival foods, nettles have a very pleasant flavor. They can be used in a variety of recipes from smoothies to lasagna and can generally be substituted in any recipe that calls for spinach. One cup contains between 8 percent and 18 percent of the recommended daily intake of iron and 33 percent to 43 percent of the recommended daily intake of calcium. The high iron content makes nettles a great supplement to combat anemia or attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder. It has been used to lessen the symptoms of premenstrual syndrome, including preventing headaches, mood swings and bloating.

One cup of nettles also supplies nearly three times the amount of vitamin A needed daily. The plant also provides chromium, cobalt, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, potassium, riboflavin, selenium, thiamine, vitamin C and zinc.

Instead of fearing the stinging nettle plant the next time we encounter it in the woods, we can carefully harvest and take it home to include in our next meal. Those that prefer to eschew the expedition may find it in the bulk spice area of local health food stores.

Shannon Francis graduated from UW Stevens Point with an environmental education degree and has been a trainer for the Peace Corps, YMCA and Timberland Boot Company. She founded Resiliency Training, LLC, which is dedicated to teaching homesteading skills and the skills necessary to become resilient in the outdoors. For more information, call 262-515-5331, email or visit

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