Stinging Nettle – Ouch!

Poulsbo, WA – The woodland trails are beckoning.  Winter’s mucky remnants are drying up and the woodland backdrop is filling up with a muted, yet cheery spring version of chartreuse. The world is alive once again and I want to be right in the middle of it soaking it all in.

I must force myself to slow down and remember the Wonder Tracker’s creed to track wonder with caution. Along with the lovely trillium, bleeding hearts and familiar ferns, there grows a sinister delinquent, prone to ankle biting and other painful offenses. The fast  growing, invasive Stinging Nettle is reaching for the spring sun with youthful vigor and spreading like wildfire. Tender leaves unfurl at its crown, but beware of what lurks in the shadows under each leaf… an arsenal of hollow chemical-tinged stinging hairs. Just brushing against nettle leaves can cause a stinging sensation for days.

Look for serrated leaves on straight stalks

With its bad reputation, the Stinging Nettle is often dismissed as a forest and meadow bad guy, but in truth, it is one of the most interesting, as well as nutritious plants in the woods. Butterflies, ladybugs and seed eating birds love nettle and once we learn how to navigate and disable the stinging hairs, we can join wild creatures in a nutritious feast. Packed with vitamins, nettles can be used as cooked greens, soups, tonics, pesto and teas.

To harvest Stinging Nettles, start by covering your skin with long sleeves and pants, as well as heavy gloves. Stinging Nettle plants tend to grow in groups so try to stay on the edges. Use scissors to cut off the more tender top 2-3 pairs of leaves at the top of the plant with a clean cut. Some pick nettles all summer, but others believe it is important to harvest before the plant blooms. For more information on harvesting Stinging Nettle, read the informative post on

Every plant and creature seems to have an important part to play in the woodland forest landscape but each species has also been designed with at least one way to protect themselves. From irritating hairs to stings to bites, learn to track the wonder of defense mechanisms.

WT LogoCultivate Wonder… Discover Design

Where and When – Common year round in damp, fertile ground, especially where soil has been disturbed. Watch for their saw tooth edged leaves, drooping flower stalk and straight four sided stems (which is an indication that it is part of the mint family)

Wonder Triggers for Young Trackers

  • Find a Stinging Nettle plant on the edge of the trail where you can study it without brushing against its neighbors. Look at the whole plant first.  How tall is it? How do the leaves grow? Are there any patterns? Does this plant look like any other plants in the forest?
  • Does nettle grow in groups or as single plants?
  • Use your magnifying glass to study the top of the leaves, then the bottoms.  Do you see the hairs growing under the leaf and on the stems? Can you see that they are hollow?  Do you notice them growing in a particular direction?  Most hairs will grow at an angle, pointing to the ground away from the plant.
  • If the hairs irritate skin, how does that help the Stinging Nettle plant to survive?
  • Does the plant currently have a blossom or any sign of seeds?  What do they look like?

References and Resources

BBC News

Wildlife Trusts

Love to Know – Herbs

Wolf College – Stinging Nettle – Harvesting, Processing and Recipes

Images – Sharon Pegany – Copyright 2108


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