Often referred to as stinging nettle, common nettle has a sturdiness and spicy flavor that make it suitable for many types of dishes. It’s also a high-yield plant that grows almost as quickly as you can harvest it.
Where to Find It
Common nettle is a hardy plant that can be found anywhere with nutrient-rich soil, including hedges, roadsides, forests, woodland edges, suburban lawns, meadows, and alongside streams and the sea. It especially likes shrubbery. If allowed, it will take over large swaths of land, especially where trees have been cleared or after a forest fire.
Salt marshes, streams, beaches, deciduous forests, coniferous forests, towns, hedges, roadsides, grasslands.
When to Find It
You can pick common nettles from March until November.
Entire plant: March, April, May, June, July, August, September, October, November. Seeds: August, September, October, November.
How to Spot It
Common nettles have serrated leaves that grow in pairs on either side of the stem and that are densely covered with small, stinging hairs. As fall approaches, the plant grows seeds in small, oblong clusters. Common nettles can reach lengths of 80 cm and will creep along the ground as they grow.
How to Pick It
In early spring you can pick the entire plant, but as they grow larger, you should focus on the fresh shoots. In summer, that will mean the top 15 cm of the stem, with between four and six pairs of leaves, though when the plant grows out—usually in a couple of weeks—you’ll be able pick from it again. Once common nettles begin to grow seeds, however, they are no longer very fun to handle. You’ll definitely want to use scissors and gloves so you don’t get stung.
On the palate
Raw common nettles taste distinctly of cucumber peel, with notes of iron and dried grass. You’ll need to rub off their hairs before eating, and be warned: they are somewhat tough and can leave your mouth feeling dry. Once cooked, the flavor is reminiscent of roasted nuts and unsalted popcorn, and delivers a hit of spicy umami.
Common nettles have a dark, sour, hay-like scent.
Common nettles are most interesting when cooked. First because they can tolerate prolonged, high heat, and second because cooking removes their hairs, so they no longer sting. Deep frying and grilling (a particularly good idea with older, tougher leaves) brings out their complex flavor—spicy, nutty, umami, with a few earthy notes like dried hay thrown in—but they’ll maintain it, if a bit more mildly, even if blanched or boiled. They will also absorb flavors from other ingredients. The seeds can be dried in the oven, where they will take on a subtle flavor of roasted nuts.
Common nettles have a wide range of uses in cooking, and can be used in fish, meat, poultry and vegetable recipes. They are especially good with oils, and marry well with dairy products, eggs, and pasta. In Italian cuisine, common nettles are added to gnocchi and mixed with ricotta to make a classic stuffing for ravioli. Raw, they can be pureed to make green sauces and dressings. The dried seeds can be sprinkled over any preparation in which you would otherwise use flax seeds.
Cover the common nettles with a moist cloth and store in a sealed bag or airtight container inside the crisper drawer of your refrigerator, where they will stay fresh for up to two weeks.
Common nettles can be replaced with white dead-nettles and red dead-nettles.
Risk of misidentifying the plant
There is no risk of mistaking the plant for another dangerous or undesirable plant.