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Wild Thing

Spring Nettles

Don’t let prickly nature scare you off

By Fischer Jex

One day he saw some peasants busy plucking out Nettles; he looked at the heap of plants uprooted and already withered and said— “They are dead. Yet it would be well if people know how to make use of them. When the nettle is young, its leaf forms an excellent vegetable; when it matures, it has filaments and fibres like hemp and flax. Nettle fabric is as good as canvas. Chopped, the nettle is good for poultry; pounded it is good for cattle. . .  And what does the nettle require? Little earth, no attention, no cultivation. Only the seed falls as it ripens, and is difficult to gather. That is all. With a little trouble, the nettle would be useful; it is neglected and becomes harmful.”

—Victor Hugo, Les Miserables

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Photo by istockphoto.com

I found out the hard way that skinny-dipping is best done when it begins at the water’s edge. This important discovery occurred one hot July night as a friend and I stripped on the edge of a field and proceeded to run to the lake through a meadow that just happened to contain a large bed of stinging nettles. I wasn’t too put off, in part because I knew the stinging would quickly subside, but mainly because no amount of pain can distract the mind of a teenage boy who is about to swim naked with a girl. She, however, was to say the least not thrilled, and our night ended right then and there.

Stinging nettle is a plant that evokes varying emotions. Most hate it and want this vile weed eradicated, yet there are a crazy few who love it and greedily seek it out. Despite my hundreds of painful encounters with nettles, I happen to fall into the group of nettle devotees. The fear and hatred of nettles is a new phenomenon, an ignorance caused by people’s growing dependence on supermarkets. The Scottish poet Thomas Campbell noticed this burgeoning nettle-phobia in England in the early 1800s and retorted:

“In Scotland, I have eaten nettles, I have slept in nettle sheets, and I have dined off a nettle tablecloth. The young and tender nettle is an excellent potherb. The stalks of the old nettle are as good as flax for making cloth. I have heard my mother say that she thought nettle cloth more durable than any other species of linen.”

Many people are shocked to find out that a plant with such painful qualities makes fine fiber for clothes, and they are even more surprised when I tell them to eat it. Just make sure you cook it first!

Plant Identification

Nettles are so well known that they need no description. They may be found, by feeling, in the darkest night.

—Nicholas Culpeper, Complete Herbal (1653)

Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) was introduced from Europe, where it is still commonly collected for food, fabric and medicine by cottagers who even brew nettle beer. It is a tall perennial that requires very rich soil to thrive. Common in open fields, it spreads by underground rhizomes and forms thick colonies, making collection all the easier. The stalks are thin, squared and hollow. At maturity in late summer they are around six feet tall, but they can get much taller under the right circumstances. I’ve seen a patch of nettles along a slow stream that reached over 10 feet tall.

The leaves appear as opposite pairs and only branch out from the stalk a couple inches. They are two to five inches long and jaggedly toothed with a pointed tip. Our native nettle is the wood nettle (Laportea canadensis) and grows in shaded forests. It is smaller (around four feet tall when mature) and broader compared to stinging nettle, with wide oval leaves appearing alternately along the stem. In my opinion, this nettle packs a more painful punch when stumbled into.

The flowers of these plants are very small and inconspicuous, appearing as green clusters in summer.

Both these nettles are an extremely healthy food and their stinging qualities are completely destroyed by boiling or steaming, rendering them an excellent vegetable. The stinging nettle is more fibrous than the wood nettle, but still an amazingly delicious green.

Harvest

Spring is the time to harvest the young nettles. I generally pick the top six inches or so from each plant. This is the tender part until it approaches summer, when only the topmost leaves are useable as food. Harvesting is best until nettles begin to flower.

A pair of gloves may be helpful with this plant. Most harvesters I know have forgotten the gloves once or twice when in the field and found ways to minimize stings. I find gloves too hot and cumbersome and luckily got the hang of picking without pricking . . .  sometimes. It also helps knowing that these little “stingers” contain histamines and folic acid that have been found to be extremely successful in treating arthritis and rheumatic conditions. In fact, people had been purposefully whipping their sore joints with nettles for hundreds of years before this scientific discovery!

Preparation

Steaming, boiling or drying nettles renders them harmless, and by this process the vile and tormenting weed becomes one of my favorite vegetables. After cooking, it can be used like spinach in any recipe but is much richer and earthier flavored than domestic greens. Nettles lose a little more than half their volume once cooked, so be sure to harvest enough for your recipe. The broth left behind after boiling is an excellent, rich and hearty tea—actually more like a meal. It can be used as a vegetable broth for soups, and since it can curdle milk, has long been used as a vegetarian rennet substitute in cheesemaking.

Nettles are extremely high in vitamin A, and contain lots of vitamin C, calcium, iron and potassium. As more and more research is done, nettles are proving to be a powerhouse of nutrition and health-promoting minerals. USDA scientists discovered that stinging nettles contain 47 parts per million of boron, which the Rheumatoid Arthritis Foundation recommends at least 2 milligrams of daily to help bones retain calcium. A 100-gram serving of stinging nettle well exceeds this recommendation. According to some studies, nettles have more protein than any previously studied green vegetable!

As this coming spring arrives, don’t let the potential for a minor sting prevent you from wildcrafting this wonderful herb—with gloves, you’ll never have a problem. And besides, connecting with wild nature—be it foraging, bird watching, fishing, skinny-dipping— always means getting dirty, wet or pricked. It’s all part of the process of developing a deeper relationship with our encompassing Earth. If you truly enjoy being out there, you’ll probably not even notice the discomforts. Just watch any kid.

I have a number of reliable wild nettle patches around my place, and when I find a new one I mark it on my topo map. But last year, along the Muskegon River, I found the largest patch of stinging nettles I’ve ever seen. This patch was dense, well over an acre and surrounded by an edible forest of flowering sassafras and black locust trees. I’ve recruited several nettle enthusiasts to join me this spring on a weekend of camping and harvesting, so it looks as though we will finally have enough nettles to last through the winter. I just wish I could say that about morel mushrooms.

Fischer Jex is a wild foods enthusiast and outdoor educator who lives in the Jordan River Valley at the Martha Wagbo Farm and Education Center. Contact him at Fischer@Wagbo.org or follow his blog at EatAWeed.blogspot.com.

 

Here is my recipe for nettle soup. Since it is popular in Scandinavia, I tried to keep with the Northwoods theme for some of the more obscure ingredients. For folks who aren’t as insistent as me, there are more easily obtainable substitutes included.

Nettle Soup

Serves 8

6 wild leeks, bulbs and greens (or one medium onion and two cloves garlic)

1 tablespoon rendered bear fat (any high-quality oil will do)

2 quarts Mallard duck stock (or any poultry stock)

5 potatoes

10 cups rinsed, packed nettles

sea salt and black pepper

Separate the wild leek greens from their white bulbs and chop coarsely. Heat fat or oil in a medium stockpot. Add leek bulbs and sauté for several minutes before adding greens. Coarsely chop potatoes. Add duck stock and the potatoes to stockpot and bring to a boil. Turn heat down and simmer until potatoes are well cooked. Add nettles and simmer for five minutes. Remove from heat and purée with an immersion blender or food mill. Salt and pepper to taste.

Nettle Pesto

Makes about 1 1/2 cups

Pesto authenticity has nothing to do with basil—that’s just the most popular herb. Both the words pesto and pestle originate in the Latin word for “to pound.” To be a true pesto, the herbs used must be ground with a mortar and pestle. One could cheat and use a food processor, but I’d call that a processo.

2 cups blanched nettle leaves, well drained and well packed

1 wild leek, with greens

2 cloves garlic

1/3 cup toasted cashews

1/2 cup olive oil

sea salt

After blanching the nettles, drain them using a sieve and press out excess water. Chop all greens finely. Crush cashews in a mortar. Chop garlic well and pound in mortar. Add greens and a pinch of salt and start crushing everything well until a paste-like consistency is forming. Add olive oil slowly, a teaspoon or so at a time while mashing. The amount of oil you’d want depends on how you plan to use it. A paste for French bread would need less; a sauce for pasta would need to be thinner and use more. Add salt to taste.

 

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