My fingertips are tingling as I write this, and no, I don’t need to go see the doctor… but maybe I should start wearing gloves… Nah!
It’s pre-spring here in Western Washington and with it comes one of my favorite forage plants Urtica dioica, the Stinging Nettle.
Anyone who has spent an amount of time tromping about in the woods will have likely encountered nettles, and for some of us that first fateful meeting of bare skin and nettle will be a lifelong memory.
My childhood lesson in nettles came while we were living in Lake Stevens…. there was a huge tract of forest (now a subdivision) behind the house we lived in and we’d play back there until the cows came home.
One time out there in a stand of alder I encountered the then unfamiliar plant, I paid it no mind until it brushed my arm and then YOWZA!
I remember not being in pain so much as bewildered at what had just happened. Then as the nettle welts appeared, I recall being concerned that they were permanent, and that I’d be deformed for life.
What was this fierce plant?
Well, the nettle got me that day but now the tables have turned….
The point is, your first experience with nettles is likely to make a lasting impression, often negative. However this is a blessing in disguise for the budding forager…
If you are the type that worries about harvesting a “DEADLY LOOK-ALIKE” then you couldn’t ask for a better plant to start with, nothing stings like a nettle, least nothing around here, so if it stings, you’re safe!
Aside from the stinging, nettles are a fairly innocuous looking green plant, with teardrop shaped, jaggedly toothed leaves, bearing a slight resemblance to mint maybe.
Later as they become older and begin to flower, nettles become lanky and spent looking, with these hanging clusters of ball-looking things, which are actually the flowers. When I was a kid I mistakenly thought it was these clusters that delivered the sting. (I decided further investigation wasn’t necessary)
In winter, nettles will have long died, however you can still nettle hunt by looking for the remaining nettle stalks. They are up to about three or four feet tall, and often sort of mottled black/white. This is a good way to mentally note hunting grounds for the coming spring.
No, not the Paul Newman/ Robert Redford flick (though I love that soundtrack) I’m referring to the “sting that puts the “stinging” in Stinging Nettles.
Most of the nettle plant is covered by very fine, hollow hairs that break off and imbed themselves in your skin upon contact.
The sting you feel is the result of a complex concoction consisting of chemicals that most of us do not recognize, nor can pronounce.
Luckily, the resultant sting and (occasionally accompanying) welts are temporary, and will not cause permanent disfigurement or discomfort.
(That being said, I’ve had tingling in my fingers for days after a big harvest, then again I don’t use gloves)
There are many folk remedies for mitigating the sting, I can’t vouch for any as I’ve never tried them, however, if you can’t handle the sting, perhaps you should reconsider harvesting stinging plants.
Friendly food for thought!
Stinging Nettles are loaded with vitamins and minerals, in fact just one cup of steamed nettles will provide 555% of your daily vitamin K!
Nettles are also used medicinally, and something of a panacea.
Just look up Stinging Nettle and medicine or herbal or something like that and you’ll see what I mean.
Extolled benefits include helping the liver, the kidneys, the cardiovascular system, the prostate, and so on and so on!
It’s wide array of benefits are lauded so much that it almost sounds like old-time snake-oil. (Who knows, could have been a key ingredient)
Historically nettle fabric was widely used as rope, sail cloth and clothing among other things.
Industrially it is not used so much these days, but if you are so interested, it can be spun into yarn, and might make for a fun project for the textile-inclined.
Nettles have been used as a hair tonic as well. (Perhaps even halting or reversing baldness… but I don’t buy it)
While it’s uses are wide and perhaps wider than I’ve mentioned here, personally use nettle most often for food and tea.
Cooking nettles neutralizes it’s sting, and only after a very short time, 30 seconds perhaps. If you are apprehensive, just try and sting yourself with it before you stick it in your mouth.
More often than not, I steam nettles and pack them into freezer bags for future use.
I really enjoy eating them like cooked spinach, with a little Parmesan cheese sprinkled on top.
A new favorite trick is to chop them really fine with a Cuisinart and add them to soups. My split pea/nettle soup is especially good, as the nettle imparts a slightly sweet earthy taste which really melds well with the peas and other ingredients.
I was thinking of juicing some cooked nettles as well!
Nettle tea is another favorite, and I find it has an almost “magic” way of warming the body and soul on a winter day.
Nettle tea is pretty good on it’s own, in addition to earthy and slightly sweet I’d describe it as green, very green.
It can be easily blended with many other teas too, as it’s flavor melds well, never being too overpowering.
Many of the medicinal benefits of nettle can be imparted in tea form.
To make the tea, simply dry the leaves, don’t worry, drying also neutralizes the sting. I find this is easiest in a dehydrator, but on a cookie sheet in an oven at it’s lowest setting is another option.
You may also be able to just air dry, either by spreading the leaves out, or by hanging the whole stalk up, and crumbling the leaves off when dessicated.
To glove or not to glove, is it even a question?
When I first started nettling many many years ago, I always wore gloves. Then at some point after being stung for the thousandth time, I gave them up.
Going back to uses, I forgot to mention self-flagellation, more specifically known as urtication. (From Urtica, yeah, latin, you see what they did there?) This is an old folk/Native American technique to treat rheumatism, er, take ones mind off of rheumatism rather.
I always thought it sounded crazy, I mean who in the hell would whip themselves with nettles? Well, as it so happens after working without gloves for so long now I can honestly say, “I can see that”
After getting used to the sting, and sort of accepting it, it’s not so bad. In fact after the sting starts to “mature” it actually does seem to have a sort of numbing quality, or maybe I’ve just gone nettle crazy.
Anyway, gloves or none, it’s your choice.
Nettles intended as tea or food should be harvested while they are young. Usually this means less than a foot tall or so. Some people will harvest up until just before the bloom, but generally the younger the better.
After they are over a foot tall or thereabouts, and begin to go into flower, they produce cystoliths (mineral deposits) in the leaves which it is said, can be irritating to the kidneys and gastrointestinal tract.
So far as eating or drinking, it might be best to err on the side of caution here, however nettles at this stage can still be used for other purposes such as fiber or as a hair tonic. Read deeply and experiment broadly!
I usually go out harvesting armed with a pair of scissors and a bag. Simple as that.
I find it is best to cut the nettle cleanly, leaving a few sets of leaves below the cut so that the plant may continue to grow.
Be picky! Don’t harvest everything in sight just because you can, or because it’s fun, it’s not a contest. (Though there is a nettle eating contest in England)
Make sure to look over the plant good, save yourself the trouble of excessive cleaning by omitting infested, or overly filthy plants from your picking bag.
I usually process my nettles while in the field, finding myself a good place to rest my butt while I overlook the leaves and snip them into a bag, leaving something of a nettle skeleton midden as proof I was there.
If you wanted to try and do something with the fiber however, you should hang onto the skeletons.
I have also brought home nettles, stalk and all, for hanging to dry for tea. This can even be sort of decorative if you are into that neo-hippie/old timey look.
Only once has someone ever advised me “Don’t harvest the whole plant and leave some of the nettles behind”, which is in stark contrast to the vast majority of passersby who suggested I use RoundUp rather than weed by hand.
Here in Washington State the nettle is a native plant and should not be treated like an invasive weed, so despite what the public consensus is regarding nettles, bear in mind conservation.
Anyway, there is much more to nettles than I have touched on here so again I encourage you to read deeply and experiment broadly,