Stinging Nettle Soup (vegan, gluten-free)
Get to know the amazing stinging nettle, and make this creamy and rich soup that helps to nourish and cleanse your body.
If you are new to foraging, stinging nettles (Urtica dioica) are probably one of the easiest wild plants to start your wild food journey with! Although they're regarded by many as a noxious plant to be eradicated, humans have had a strong relationship with nettles for thousands of years. When you get to know nettle, you will soon realize what an incredible plant it is.
Stinging nettle offers so many good things to us humans, and we have been using the plant for many purposes for thousands of years: as an important source of food, as plant medicine, and to create many things including cordage, fabric, carpets, fishing nets, and fertilizer.
Tricky to handle because of their prickly exterior, stinging nettle leaves are a very flavorful green on our plates. Their rich, earthy spinach-like flavor is wonderful in soups, hummus, pesto sauces, to make nettle chips, or as an addition to many dishes where you would otherwise use leafy green vegetables.
Nettles not only support humans, but they also help their plant neighbors by mining and distributing minerals from the soil. They also assist them in their defense against pest and diseases. Like all other species, nettles play an essential role in the web of life.
You might not expect it of this humble plant found in less regarded spaces like ditches or disturbed lands, but nettles are one of the most nutritious foods on the planet. Nettles can provide us with even more nutritional benefits than spinach, kale, or asparagus. They are a rich source of various minerals including iron, magnesium, calcium, and silicon. Nettles also have high levels of vitamins C and A, and more protein than any other green vegetables (dried leaves contain 25 percent protein!). Many of the nutrients nettle provides act as antioxidants inside your body, and defend your cells against damage from free radicals.
Stinging nettle has a long history of medicinal use. In medieval Europe, the plant was used to treat joint pain, arthritis, and as a diuretic (to rid the body of excess water). Research now shows that nettles have many more health benefits, including that they helps us to reduce the symptoms of hay fever, they can treat urinary problems, high blood pressure, prostate issues, and gout, help the body to control blood sugar levels, and they support heart and reproductive health. Quite an impressive list I would say!
FINDING STINGING NETTLE
In Southern Sweden where I live, stinging nettle starts to appear around the end of April, when the ground starts to warm up after the cold of winter. Depending on the local climate where you live, this can happen earlier or later for you. Nettles will continue to grow and can be harvested throughout the year, and can reach an impressive 1.8m (6ft) in the fall. However, if you are planning on eating the nettle leaves (vs. for example making a tea or a tincture), when possible, it's best to eat them when they are fresh and young.
You can find stinging nettle growing in thickets near stream banks, disturbed lands, and in rich, damp soils. They also like to grow near us humans, and there is a good chance you will find them around settlements, old historical sites, and homesteads.
When you think you have found stinging nettles, there are ways to make sure you have indeed found this nutritious friend, and not a lookalike. The most straightforward (and courageous!) way to identify stinging nettles is... to touch them. If you brush them against your arm or leg and don't feel anything, you probably found another plant species.
Another way to identify stinging nettle, is to inspect the plant visually. Look if you see small hairs on the stems and leaves of the plant. The stem will be square and hollow, and will have opposite leaves that are shaped like an oblong heart. These will have sharply toothed edges. A more mature plant will also have clusters of tiny flowers that hang down the stems like catkins. Stinging nettle has some non-toxic and sting-free lookalikes that include wood nettle (Laportea canadensis), purple dead nettle (Lamium purpureum), slender nettle (Uritica gracilis) and Clearweed (Pilea pumila). It's good to always consult quality guidebooks or experts if you are in doubt to ensure proper identification.
HARVESTING & PROCESSING STINGING NETTLE
When you have found stinging nettles, look for tender young plants. Harvest the nettles by only cutting off the top with 4-6 leaves of some of the plants, and leave the rest. Whether with nettles or anything else in nature, it’s important to walk softly on the Earth and to forage with care. We are guests and receivers of gifts from wild lands and forests, so please consider how you can do this respectfully and only take what you need. Perhaps you could even offer a little gift like a few words of gratitude for what the nettles are giving you.
The sting you feel on your skin when touching a nettle is caused by thin hairs that are called trichomes. They grow on its stem and the underside of its leaves. For many people including myself, the tingling sensation only lasts for 15-30 minutes, but for others some people, it can last for up to 24 hours.
Most people harvest stinging nettles wearing gloves, and these surely make the job a lot easier! However to me, harvesting without gloves can provide an interesting and more mindful experience, where you really have to observe the plant and take your time.
To harvest without gloves, when clipping, try to position your basket or bowl underneath the plant, pulling the tip of the plant over with your scissors. This way, when clipped, the tip falls directly into your basket. If you want to use only your hands, touch the plant gently and use your fingertips. Your skin is thicker here, and because of that you're less likely to feel the prickly sensation.
Of course we want to make sure there is no more sting when we eat the nettles. Luckily, this is very easy to achieve. People use different methods for this. The nettle tops can be blanched, cooked, or steamed for a few minutes until soft. When you dry the fresh plants for later use, the sting will be gone from the drying process.
Now that you have learned all about nettles, let's make some delicious soup!
VISUAL GUIDE FOR RECIPE
You can find the ingredients and a description of the steps to make the nettle soup in the recipe card at the bottom of this page. Below there is a little little visual help to show you some of the steps.
RECIPE STINGING NETTLE SOUP
Disclaimer: Every year there are some people that are poisoned or experience other negative health effects from eating inedible wild plants or mushrooms that resemble edible species. For this reason it's essential to ensure proper species identification and to consult multiple quality sources for doing this. It's also important to always check and follow all local foraging regulations before you harvest anything in nature.