Introduction: Stinging Nettle Soup

About: Lifelong interest in making and learning new things.

Stinging Nettle Soup may sound strange but it tastes very good and is a favorite in many parts of the world. This recipe is the simple version having just nettles and onions simmered in a vegetable broth that looks very much like a beef broth but there is no meat in this recipe.

There are two types of knowledge that are needed before one can safely harvest food and medicine from the wild. The first type of knowledge is scientific. Accurate identification of plants is made using a key developed by plant scientists.

Once a plant is identified, an ethnobotanist can provide information on how to collect, process and use plant material so that it is safe and delicious to eat!

This tutorial will provide tips and advice on how to collect stinging nettle plants and onions in the wild and then prepare an appetizing soup.

Step 1: Plant Field Guides Vs Plant Dichotomous Keys

Scientific knowledge is essential to ensure that the correct plant is identified whenever plants are collected in the wild to be used as food or medicine.

As seen in the upper part of the photo, general plant field guides provide basic and limited identification suitable for many amateur purposes but scientific dichotomous keys (shown in the lower portion of the photo) are used by professionals for precise identification and are the source of information needed to identify plants collected in the wild for food and medicine.

Plant field guides use photographs and descriptions of general plant characteristics to help identify plants. The difficulty that may arise is when plants that appear the same are in reality different.

A dichotomous key will allow the user, with some practice, to accurately identify plants. The dichotomous key is developed by a professional plant scientist who guides the user through repeated sets of two questions, known as couplets.

For example, an overly simplified dichotomous key is presented below to illustrate how the dichotomous key works.

Our hypothetical scenario is that we are in a woodland with different tree and shrub species. We want to harvest pinion nuts for food and we need to be sure of the correct species.


1a: plant is woody? --> go to 2a
1b: plant is not woody? --> go to 27a (not shown here)

2a: plant is a shrub? --> go to 13a (not shown here)
2b: plant is a tree? --> go to 3a

3a: tree has needles? --> go to 4a
3b: tree has broadleaves? --> go to 9a (not shown here)

4a: tree has 1 needle per bundle? -->species is Pinion Pine
4b: tree has 3 needles per bundle? -->species is Yellow Pine

With this as an example our correct choices would be 1a, 2b, 3a and 4a all of which leads us to the correct pine tree, the Pinion pine!

Step 2: Tools for Plant Identification

A few simple tools, listed below, are all that are needed to identify plants.

Magnification lens
Metric ruler
Sharp pointed tweezers
Soft brush
Dichotomous Key
Botany dictionary

A dissecting microscope is needed for those, like myself, who spend a lot of time identifying plants.

A dichotomous key is usually a set of printed volumes specific to a region. However, electronic keys are increasingly available, often at no charge over the internet, and can also be used.

A botany dictionary is also needed to help define some of the technical terminology found in dichotomous keys.

Step 3: Collecting Stinging Nettle

Now that we have correctly identified stinging nettle, it is time to collect the plants!

There are some communities that regard stinging nettle as a nuisance weed and may try to eradicate it with herbicides. So care must be taken to collect nettles in areas that have not been sprayed with herbicides.

Also avoid areas near roads as exhaust fumes from cars and trucks may leave deposits on adjacent plants.

Many plants have some form of defense to protect themselves. As the name implies, stinging nettle plants are covered with fine hairs that have a chemical compound which causes a stinging sensation and rash when touched.

To avoid the rash wear rubber or leather gloves.

Collect the upper ends of the plants that are less fibrous and place in a canvas shopping bag.

Step 4: Collecting Wild Onions

Nettles are not the only edible plants growing in the Spring. Many species of onions are also shooting up green leaves from the white bulb below the ground as seen in Photo 1.

Once again, use a dichotomous key to properly identify the plant before you collect. Use all of your senses as you key out the plant. Be sure to gather the outer layers of the onion bulb (Photo 2) as many species of onion have different and interesting patterns on the outer layer that, when viewed under magnification, are facinating and useful in identifying onion species.

The green onion leaves easily separate from the bulb as a survival strategy, so resist the temptation to pull on the leaves as a way to extract the bulb from the soil. Dig down deep enough into the soil with a pointed tool or shovel to grab the prized onion bulbs with your fingers.

The onions seen in Photo 3 are small with a strong wonderful taste. Just a few onions are needed to add amazing flavor to the stinging nettle soup.

Step 5: Ethnobotanic Knowledge

How can you eat something that gives you a burning rash if you touch it?!?!

This is certainly the question that everyone wonders about. This is where the science of ethnobotany comes in. Ethnobotany is simply the knowledge of how humans use plants.

Ethnobotanic knowledge may be a little more challenging to access. The best approach is to learn from someone who is skilled in using plants collected from the wild for food and medicine.

Published and online sources such as this are also useful. In any case a level of trust in one's ethnobotanic knowledge must be built. There is always risk involved with using unknown wild plants. When learning about using wild plants for food and medicine, locate as much information as you can and start small, gradually building your ethnobotanic expertise.

Many plants require processing in order to render them edible and ethnobotanic knowledge provides this critical information.

In this case, stinging nettles loose their stinging properties when cooked or dried, after which they are perfectly safe to handle and are edible.

Step 6: Cleaning the Gathered Plants

Place the collected stinging nettles into a basin and fill with water. Using dishwashing gloves, grab a nettle plant and swish it in the water to remove any dirt or other debris and place in a separate pot.

Remove the outer layers of the onions and cut off the roots. Rinse in water to remove soil particles.

Step 7: Stinging Nettle Soup Recipe

The recipe for Stinging Nettle Soup can be as simple or as elaborate as desired. This recipe is the simple version.

8 cups, loosely packed, of fresh stinging nettle leaves and tender stems
8 small wild onions, finely chopped
8 cups of vegetable broth or water
2 tablespoons of oil or butter
3 tablespoons of whole wheat flour
2 teaspoons of sea salt

1 cup = 236 ml
1 tablespoon = 14 ml
1 teaspoon = 5 ml

Step 8: Making Vegetable Broth

Making vegetable broth is easy and a great way to use vegetable pieces that are typically discarded such as potato peelings, carrot ends, squash ends, yam skins, onion skins and roots.

Fill a large pot with vegetable scraps. Fill the pot with just enough water to cover the vegetable scraps and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes. Best flavor is achieved by letting the contents sit for an hour or overnight.

Use a fine mesh strainer to separate the broth from the vegetable scraps.

The vegetable broth has a deep brown color that resembles beef broth but, of course, contains no meat.

Step 9: Making the Soup

Use tongs or gloves to place nettles into a steamer and steam until tender, about 10 minutes. After steaming, the nettles are safe to touch and eat. Finely chop the steamed nettles. A blender can also be used to puree the nettles but I like the soup to have a little coarser texture.

Meanwhile, finely chop the wild onions, bulbs and green tops, and saute in oil for two minutes.

If desired, toast the flour in a skillet until browned for added flavor.

Add the flour to the onions, mix well and cook for 3 minutes.

Add two cups of vegetable broth and stir well.

Add the chopped nettles.

Add the remaining vegetable broth, and salt.

Bring soup to a boil then reduce heat and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes.

Step 10: Backpacker's Dehydrated Version

A dehydrated version of this soup is great to take along on a camping or backpacking trip.

.5 cup of crushed dehydrated stinging nettle leaves
2 teaspoons of dehydrated onion
.25 cup of shredded dehydrated potato
2 teaspoons of whole wheat flour
2 cups of water
.5 teaspoon salt
1 vegetable bullion cube

1 cup = 236 ml
1 tablespoon = 14 ml
1 teaspoon = 5 ml

Soak dehydrated vegetables and bullion cube for 15 to 20 minutes in your cooking pot. Meanwhile get your campfire going or set up your camp stove.

Mix the flour with a little water in a cup and mash out lumps before adding to the rehydrated vegetables in the soup pot. Place pot on the fire, or camp stove and bring soup to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 5 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Step 11: Final Thoughts

No matter which version you prepare, the fresh or backpacker's dehydrated version, you will hopefully enjoy a delicious soup that has many health benefits.

There are a number of enhancements that can be made to this basic recipe.

Some like to add:

Chicken broth
Cream or half and half
Sour cream
Plain yogurt

There are numerous wild plants that can be used in a variety of ways. Making the proper plant identification is the first step. Understanding processing and preparation of plant material is the next step. With time, these skills will increase as will your appreciation and enjoyment of natural foods.

If you live in an area without stinging nettle plants or you are not comfortable identifying plants in the wild, there are other options.

Stinging nettles can be purchased at farmer's markets or online. Spinach is a great substitute for stinging nettles and spring onions are equally as fine as wild onions.

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