Nettle Identification

I love nettles. They are an absolutely fantastic super-food, super-medicine,abundant, native in UK and they’re free! What more could you ask for? The young leaves are protein rich and great additions to soups/stews, and the seeds are great for a nutritious energy boost.

There are 3 main types of nettle found in the u.k. The three main types you will come across if you look really hard are the Common (Urtica dioica), Dwarf (U. urens)and Roman (U. pilulifera). They all have different nutritional values

There are also Dead Nettles which look very similar but aren’t actually nettles  they are in a totally different family – the mints (Lamiaceae). They have red, white and pink ‘hoodie’ shaped flowers are arranged in a whorl around the stem. They have no stings and white flowers. Other deadnettles have pink or yellow versions.

dead nettle
Dead Nettle


The common nettle, is the one most likely found around the hedgerows followed by the dwarf nettle. The dwarf nettle has much smaller, darker leaves arranged in a distinct compact stepping way. The common nettle also has a sub species called ‘fen’ or ‘stingless nettle’ (Urtica dioica subsp. galeopsifolia)  so if you ever find a plant you are convinced is nettle but doesn’t sting – it could be that one.  Leaves are about 2-5 inches long with jagged edges, found in opposing pairs along the upper half of the stalk.  Leaves are pointed at the tips, with a heart-shaped base and indented veins. The plant will have small “hairs” up the stalk and stems. (This is where the sting comes from!) Young plants will have smaller, heart-shaped leaves with a purple-ish hue, while the mature plants have longer, pointed leaves that appear very green.


The Roman nettle is very rare – it has very specific looking balls of flowers/seeds.Both the Roman and dwarf nettles do not have separate female and male plants, both sexes of flowers grow on same plant.

roman nettle
Roman Nettle


Nettle leaves are best gathered at two times in the year, when they are still fresh, green and tasty looking and before they have flowered: This is in spring and in autumn (IF they have been cut back, there will be a ‘second flush’ of fresh leaves).Pick the top few leaves, leaving the lower down ones alone. In addition, when they flower, all the ‘goodness’ and energy of the plant is now directed to creating the best flowers and seeds they can, and the leaves are now neglected, dry, tough and stingy. Remember that nettles provide an important source of food and a home to lots of wildlife, so please check your plants for caterpillars and eggs before gathering, and leave plenty of plants for them too!

Once the nettles have started to flower, the leaves are traditionally no longer used – they are said to contain insoluble calcium carbonate crystals that are hard to flush out of the body, can build up in the kidneys and give you kidney/back pain, particularly if you are prone already to kidney infections or have kidney troubles… theoretically, if you had loads, you could create kidney stones.

Nettle Seeds

The seeds of nettles are edible and medicinal. Common nettle is the best to harvest seeds from but they have separate female and male plants.

Male and Female plants
Male and Female plants

The males produce pollen to fertilise the female plants which in turn then produce the seeds. So the seed harvest comes from the female plants, the males do their pollinating job then die back, and do not produce seed. The seeds are encased in what looks like green bishops hats gathered in clusters and are best gathered when green. Once brown and dry, the seeds are of no use. Also, when you pick them green, they don’t keep their properties well if you try to dry them as their oils go rancid quite quickly, so they are best used fresh. Just snip off the strings into a bag or cut down the nettle tops, tie upside down inside a linen bag and give them a good shake to get them out!

Seed uses

Nettle Seeds contain essential fatty acids Omega 3 oils and are used to support kidney and adrenal function and as a boost when over worked adrenals impacts on energy levels. They are also said to promote glossy hair.