Let's learn how to collect Stinging Nettle stalks for string making and cordage. The best time of year is when the days get shorter, and the leaves begin to turn autumn colors. This is when the Nettle plants are no longer in flower and the plant's energy retreats back to its roots for a winter's sleep. It's the season I go to my stinging nettle patch to forage and gather the green, square stalks (Urtica dioica), for my winter's string-making stash.
How to collect Stinging Nettle stalks
Collecting Stinging Nettles can be an adventure as many experienced nettle foragers know. So, you want to make sure you dress accordingly and have the right clothing for gathering the stalks of the nettle.
What you need to collect stinging nettle stalks
For the beginning forager who is just learning how to collect stinging nettle stalks. You will want the correct clothing to protect yourself from the tiny stinging hairs found on stalk and leaf.
The Best Recommended Clothing for gathering Stinging Nettle
- a bandana and hat to help protect the face, ears, and neck
- leather gloves to prevent stinging of the hands and wrist
- a heavy weight long sleeved shirt buttoned at the wrist
- heavy trousers or pants, blue jeans, with rain pants work great
- boots or trail shoes
Why all the heavy clothing when foraging Stinging Nettles?
Stinging Nettle needles are sharp and, appropriately enough, sting when they prick you. Heavy clothing protects you from the nasty defense mechanism of this amazing and versatile plant.
I should have worn a heavier shirt
I remember learning the need for protective clothing when harvesting nettle stalks the hard way. One of the first times I harvested stinging nettle stalks, I was cutting away at the stalks, making good progress, when suddenly a burning sensation started in my chest.
The tiny defensive hairs (needles) of the plant had penetrated my shirt and pierced my skin, unleashing its potent and irritating formic acid on my flesh. I learned a valuable lesson that day: wear heavy clothing when harvesting nettles, including gloves.
Leather gloves protect the hands the best
Leather Gloves protect the hands best when handling nettle stalks. Leave no skin exposed to nettles especially the wrists and hands
Protect the head and neck
Protect the head and neck and you will reduce the chance of a sting, bite, throbbing, irritating, or painful encounter with this very important cordage plant.
The best cutting tools
In my experience, the cutting tool I like best is my small and lightweight Japanese Basket Snips.
I use these sharp scissors for collecting small stemmed plants and shrubs, including willow, and the edible wild mushrooms I collect each fall.
But any garden scissors will work fine. Although I prefer scissors over knives for cutting stems, any sharp knife will easily cut the stalks of the stinging nettle plant.
Knife safety tip
If using a knife for cutting and harvesting stalk or stem, remember to always cut away from yourself. This will reduce the risk of accidental injury. Be careful of garden snips as the tips of these scissors are very sharp!
When is the best time to harvest Stinging Nettle stalks?
For the best results and the strongest fiber, I harvest my nettle stalks after the plant has flowered and when the days grow shorter, and the leaves begin to turn from green to brown.
The stalks can be harvested anytime, but best after they are finished blooming for the strongest string.
Cutting the stalk
Once you have determined you have the right plant, hold the stalk with one gloved hand and work your way down to the base of the plant.
I cut the stalk above the first or second leaf node from ground level. I don’t think it really makes any difference where it’s cut. But I do try to utilize as much of the stem as I can because I want to keep as much of the usable fiber as possible.
As I cut, I pile the nettle stems with the ground ends (thick ends), laying them all in one direction. This makes it easier to carry, and easier to sort later when I begin stripping the fiber from each stalk.
What to do if you get stung by Stinging Nettles?
Right, all of this scary talk of the Stinging Nettle plant might give one pause. I literally grew up alongside a huge patch near our pump we used to draft water from our creek to the house.
I often had to make the trip to check on it and the trail went right through this patch. My chores included cutting back nettles to keep the trail open, so I was often stung, bit, and harassed, by this plant.
The reaction of the Formic Acid on the skin can be quite painful and irritating and throb for hours and sometimes for days.
Stinging Nettle remedies
My number one remedy for Stinging Nettle, at the time, was mud. Being near the creek made it easy to apply a thick layer of cooling mud. I would paste the mud on the little raised bumps where the nettle had bit me for temporary relief.
I have also chewed and masticated the leaves of Curly Dock and Broad Leaf Plantain. Place the wad right on the affected area, and you will find relief with these two plants. Caution: with any plant you place in your mouth, it's extremely important that you have made a positive identification.
Leave the sting area alone
If you don't have a handy remedy available, leave the sting area alone. Don’t rub or scratch the inflamed welt caused by the histamine reaction. In my experience, the more you rub the welt the more painful it becomes.
As a child, the sting of this plant was quite painful. Nowadays, my personal reaction to this plant is a minor annoyance, though sometimes it is particularly annoying when my fingers come into contact with the plant. The area may throb for several days.
Once the plant has been cut, do the stem hairs of the nettle still sting?
Yes, even after they are cut, the little hollow needle hairs on the stalks and under the leaf will still irritate the skin. That’s why I recommend always managing the stalks with leather gloves before they are processed.
Does the nettle fiber sting after it’s been stripped from the stem of the nettle?
No. After the fiber has been stripped from the plant it no longer will sting the skin.
I hope this article has been helpful for you beginners who are excited about the world of useful native plants. The Stinging Nettle is an important plant to discover and appreciate. It has many uses from hearty food, medicine, and of course, stripping fiber from the stalks to make string and cordage.
To learn more about all-important plants for the wilderness survival enthusiast, or for anyone who enjoys supplementing their day-to-day needs from nature: sign up for my Useful Wild Plants Weekend.