Here we go-a-foraging

Stinging nettles commonly grow together in patches and are an indicator of fertile soil
Photo Credit: Creative Commons, sipa via Pixaby

BSBI New Year Plant Hunt

The Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland’s announcement of the dates for the 2019 New Year Plant Hunt brought back memories of last year’s plant hunt. December 2017’s weather was harsh with 3 heavy snowfalls, as opposed to the usual one or none in London. Only a handful of plants were robust enough to handle this weather.

Lost Ancient Plant Appreciation

Three of 2017-18’s winter stalwarts were Nettles. They are regularly written off as nuisance weeds. They are not nuisances. They are considered as edible as spinach. Regrettably, we have lost the foraging knowledge of our ancestors. Today, there is renewed interest in foraging for food. 

Edible and Beautiful Nettles?

It may seem extraordinary but it is possible to eat Stinging Nettles, White Dead-nettles and Red Dead-nettles. As you become more familiar with plant hunting, you will see beauty in species that you previously dismissed as weeds and unworthy of attention.

Common Nettle, Urtica dioica

Nettles are a native species in the Urticaceae family. They are dioecious – i.e. they have separate male and female plants. There are six subspecies.

Stinging nettles are often found close to human habitation. Children soon learn that nettles sting. The leaves have stinging hairs as shown below:

close-up of furled, young nettle leaves showing the stings at leaf edges
Stinging hairs on young nettle leaves. © Karen Andrews

Stinging Chemistry

The cocktail of chemicals in Stinging Nettles is still not fully understood by scientists. The nettles are covered in tiny, hollow hairs known as trichomes. The silica tips are very fragile and break off, even if someone just brushes past them. The hair pierces the skin like an injection needle, causing irritation and pain. Plant scientists have not been able to confirm why dock leaves seem soothing.

Gloves and Cooking

If you are going to pick Nettles, make sure you are wearing gloves and carry some antihistamine cream with you (just in case). You should only collect young leaves (such as the top 4 leaves). They are said to be rich in vitamin C, iron and various minerals. Old leaves should not be eaten at all. The ability to sting is lost by blanching or boiling the leaves.

Nettles as a Medicinal Plant

Nettles and nettle tea have historically been used for a host of ailments and as a tonic. For example, it is suggested that Nettles may be helpful for allergy sufferers early in the season. They are also used by herbalists as a diuretic. The medicinal uses and claims made online, or in books, do not seem to have fully substantiated scientific support and evidence. Warnings exist that some people may be ultra-sensitive to Nettles. Medical advice should be sought.

Mint or Dead-nettle Family

The Dead-nettles are in a different plant family to Stinging Nettles. They are in Lamiaceae (or Labiatae), the Mint or Dead-nettle family. White and Red Dead-nettles are just 2 of over 157 probable archaeophytes in Britain. These are not native plants, but they have been here since ancient times. The term archaeophyte means that they became established in Britain before AD 1500. The family includes many well-known culinary and aromatic herbs such as lavender, mint, thyme and rosemary.

This plant family is one of the easiest for beginner botanists to recognise with its characteristic square stem and pairs of opposite leaves. The flowers are irregular and often whorled with a tubed corolla.

White Dead-nettle, Lamium album

White Dead-nettles are found in hedgerows, on roadsides and waste ground. They are on fertile ground close to human habitation. They do not sting. An album of examples from different angles appears below:

Whorled inflorescence of White Dead-nettle, Lamium album
Photo Credit: Creative Commons, Hans via Pixaby

Red Dead-nettle, Lamium purpureum

Red Dead-nettles are soft to the touch and thankfully do not sting. They appear on waste ground and at roadsides on fertile soil. The flowers are carried on long stalks as in the photo below. 

Beauty of simplicity: a group of Red-dead Nettles (Lamium purpureum) with Daisies (Bellis perennis)
© Karen Andrews

An album of photos taken from different angles appears below:


Ian Burrows in Food from the Wild (2011) advises that both White and Red-dead Nettles are best picked before the plant has flowered. They can be eaten in salads, cooked like spinach, or mixed with vegetables and added to soups, sauces and stews. The beautiful flowers with their long corolla tubes can be crystallised using egg white and sugar for decorative effects.

Medicinal Uses

Both White and Red-dead nettle have been traditionally used in folk medicine with some scientific research into their properties and effects.


The White and Red Dead-nettles are popular with bumble bees for their nectar. They are also favoured by generalist moths, pollen beetles, the Pied Shieldbug and Wool Carder Bee according to the RSPB’s Gardening for Wildlife: A complete guide to nature-friendly gardening (2010) by Adrian Thomas with a foreword by Chris Packham.

Editor’s Note:

BSBI’s New Year Plant Hunt

The BSBI New Year Wild Flower Hunt takes place for the 8th year running this year. You can take part on a day chosen by you between Saturday 29th December 2018 and Tuesday 1st January 2019. For further details, refer to the BSBI’s website.

Wild Flower Hour

For updates and inspiration, check Twitter @wildflower_hour under the #wildflowerhour hashtag. Wildflower Hour runs every Sunday between 8pm and 9pm UK time throughout the year.

Copyright Note

Karen does not seek or receive any commercial interest or advantage from this blog. She is not promoting any business venture. She simply loves to share fascinating facts about plants. These pages illustrate her love of plants, botany, biodiversity, gardens and creative expression. There is always so much to learn about plant diversity. This blog is designed as a showcase for photography, commentary on plants and wildlife, gardens and other places visited, horticulture and related topics. Viewpoints are her own, not those of her employer.

© Karen Andrews 2018 onwards. All rights reserved. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Karen Andrews and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. 

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