Survival foods: Stinging nettles (Urtica dioica)

Posted: April 15, 2014 by Rex Trulove in Survival, survival food, wild food
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Stinging nettle plant (Urtica dioica)

Stinging nettle plant (Urtica dioica)

Anyone who has inadvertently brushed up against stinging nettles probably remembers the painful experience, and probably quickly learned to identify the plant. This wild plant is covered with what appear to be fine hairs. Actually, they are silicon tubes, much like tiny glass tubes, each with a tiny bulb at the end. When a person brushes up against the plant, the bulb breaks off and the tube acts like a very sharp syringe, injecting the contents: Formic acid.

It is no wonder that this burns. Formic acid is the same base that contains the venom of stinging ants and certain bee stings.

I’m not going to spend a lot of time describing the plant, since the pain has probably etched the image of stinging nettles into your mind. However, this plant is widely distributed and is found in the Americas and in Europe.

Many people might find this surprising, but stinging nettles are a tremendously valuable survival food. Cooking the plant deactivates the formic acid and breaks down the silicon tubes. The hard part is in the collection, which should be done using gloves and wearing long pants and a long sleeved shirt. Though even the mature plant is edible and contains health and nutrition benefits, after the plant is taller than about eight inches, the silicon becomes fixed and food made from it will have a gritty texture, rather as if a handful of sand has been added.

The young plant can be boiled or steamed and served as a potherb. It is excellent when it is steamed, before adding some milk and a pat of butter, to make cream of nettle soup. The soup is so delicious that some people collect stinging nettles every spring, when the plants are still young, specifically for this purpose.

Nutritionally, a cup of cooked nettles contains less than 40 calories and this is a good source of both protein and carbohydrates. It is very high in vitamin K, high in vitamin A, and is a good source of vitamin B6, ribovlavin, folate and niacin. It is also between high and extremely high in calcium, manganese, magnesium, potassium, phosphorus and copper. Nettles is a very good fiber source. At the same time, it is extremely low in fat and contains no cholesterol.

Medicinally, stinging nettles is used to treat arthritis, swollen joins, sore muscles, anemia, gout, sprains, tendinitis, hay fever, enlarged prostate, high blood pressure and it has diuretic and blood thinning properties. It is sometimes used to ease itching of insect bites, too.

The plant and the root can be dried, which also negates the formic acid, for later use as a tea for the medicinal benefits and treatments.

This is one of the most valuable wild herbs for survival and arguably one of the tastiest. It is so wide spread that it is also pretty easy to find some, except in drier places. The plant often grows along river banks since the roots do like being able to take a drink.

The picture is by byrev and is public domain:

Last survival food in the series: Alfalfa


    • Rex Trulove says:

      Quite! Some people drink dead nettle as a tea and call it nettle tea, though. Dead nettle (Lamium album) isn’t related to stinging nettle, but it is medicinal and edible. Maybe I should do a write up on dead nettle, too? What do you think?

    • Rex Trulove says:

      Yes. I personally like the flavor of both. The biggest and most obvious difference between the two plants is that dead nettle doesn’t ‘sting’. You can pick it with your bare hands. We grew some last year, but we got it too late in the year. It isn’t native to the US, it was brought in from the UK or Europe, but it has become naturalized here and many people grow it in their flowerbeds.

      I’ll try to write something up on it today.

    • Rex Trulove says:

      Usually when we collect it, we get a lot of it so I can make the soup I mentioned. Since coming to Montana, I just need to find a good patch of it that hasn’t been sprayed by pesticides. I’m sure that I will, I just haven’t done it yet. hahaha

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