[Shishnu (Nepal); Urtica dioica subsp. gracilis (American) | Urtica dioica subsp. dioica (European) of family Urticaceae of order Rosales]
The Stinging Nettle is the most common culinary member of the Urticaceae family, though others are also eaten locally. This highly nutritious plant was important to the Native population of North America, but it has fallen out of use here except as an ingredient in some herbal teas and hair treatment formulas.
Nettles are still eaten frequently in Ireland, where they were one
of the major reasons the English were not able to starve all
the Irish to death during the potato famine. They contain more usable
protein than just about any other leafy green, in general by a wide
margin. Nettles are also eaten in parts of Northern and Eastern
Europe, as well as in Italy - and in Nepal and the neighboring Kumaon
division of India. They also have medicinal uses, particularly in
treatment of arthritis.
The European stinging nettle has longer narrower leaves (photo left), but is used in the same ways as the American variety (photo top). Photo distributed under license Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0.
Buying: Here in Southern California this herb is rather scarce, but can sometimes be procured from herb growers at local Farmer's Markets. In more humid regions where there are streams you may be able to harvest your own. Use shears to cut tender young shoots before they have flowered. When flowering they develop gritty cystoliths which can irritate the urinary tract when consumed.
Do wear gloves when gathering nettles, as the "stinging" part of the name is not there without reason. Incidentally, you are more likely to be stung by lightly brushing against the plant than by handling it firmly.
Storage: Loosely bagged, nettles can be kept in the refrigerator for nearly a week if fresh and not wilted.
Prep: Float wash nettles as you would spinach, they are similarly muddy. Remove the harder stems - those turning dark or reddish. Handle them with rubber gloves if your skin is tender.
Cooking: Nettles are most often used in soups. They should be added at the very end of cooking and cooked for only a few minutes to preserve their bright green color. Nettles are also eaten raw, but only in Dorset, England, at the annual Stinging Nettle Eating Championship. They are also used to make an aromatic syrup dating from Roman times which is used to flavor drinks, and as a flavoring in some cheeses and beers.
Health & Nutrition: Nettles are very high in protein compared to other leafy plants (25% or more by dried weight). They are also rich in vitamins A, C, D, K and minerals iron, potassium, manganese and calcium.
Nutritious nettles were probably significant in the English failing to starve all the Irish to death. Yes, it was a deliberate policy. During the famine there was enough food in Ireland, but most of it was under armed guard for export to England. The English did their best to prevent other countries from supplying the Irish with food, or with money to buy food.
Nettles have been used medicinally for thousands of years for many ailments, including prostate swelling, arthritis, anemia, hay fever, kidney stones, urinary infections, gout, pain and others problems. It's effectiveness has been confirmed by medical testing in some cases.
While some large nettles in Australia (everything is more toxic in Australia) have stung animals and at least one human to death, our culinary nettles are not dangerous. If they sting you the sting goes away in 10 minutes or so.