Yesterday, Sweet Baby and I went about the woods wildcrafting nettles with a few other sweet mama/baby pairs. It was a lovely Sunday afternoon in the PNW. A bit misty, but not rainy, just moist enough to dampen the forest we (carefully) tromped through together, with baby tied to my back, and me in my rain boots. It smelled earthy, and of fern and spring, and the plants were bright and welcoming. Sweet Baby was pleasantly stimulated as she always is outside; taking it all in and babbling happily. I wondered how many times would we find ourselves in the forest together? The thought of it made me smile.
We had set out to harvest stinging nettle. Urtica dioica. Yes, the very same nettle that, if you have spent any time in the forest as a child, stings like heck when brushed upon if you’re not careful. It is capable of making huge welts on the virgin skin of an 6 year old, and even the not-so-virgin skin of the others. It honestly was probably the first plant I knew by both name and sight. Being a child of the 80’s, I roamed the forest freely, often alone, (gasp! I know), and was once bitten twice shy with the nettle. My mother took me aside and pointed out the stinging nettle to me, and from then on the plant was fearsome. It wasn’t only until some years later that I realized the ultimate healing powers of the stinging nettle and began to embrace it differently. As any growing child seems to do…
- Native to Europe, Asia, northern Africa and North America, it is an herbaceous perennial flowering plant.
- It dies all the way back to the ground in the winter, and is one of the first plants to emerge in Spring.
- The stinging sensation one gets from contacting the plant comes from trichomes on the leaves and stems. The trichomes are hollow stinging hairs that act as needles that inject histamine and other chemicals into humans and animals.
- An ideal environment for nettles is moist soil with phosphate and nitrogen.
- Nettles are the exclusive larval plant food for many species of butterfly and moth.
- Nettle has long been used as medicine and food, and effectively treats arthritis.
- Nettle is believed to be a galactogogue, promoting lactation for nursing mothers.
- Is rich in vitamins A, C, iron, potassium, manganese and calcium; it has a flavor similar to spinach and can be used in the same manner. Blanching deactivates the stingers 🙂
We were armed with a paper bag (with handles for ease of use), garden gloves, kitchen shears, long sleeves and long pants. We were careful about what we collected and followed the tenets of wildcrafting. Sustainability is very important to our family and our actions in the forest are no exception. As I hunched and stooped, I snipped the tops of my specimens and used the tips of my shears like chopsticks to pick up my loot and drop it into the bag. I was being extra cautious because my gloves were thin and I hadn’t been stung in many, many years so I was a bit wary of the outcome. Alas, the inevitable; and it wasn’t that bad. I got stung through my gloves and stung a bit through my jeans when I would unsuspectingly crouch down near a nettle. The stingers weren’t nearly as potent when buffered through my clothing, and yes, Sweet Baby was safely high up on my back enjoying the sting-free ride. (A more careful wildcrafter could have been sting-free, but that’s just not my style).
Nettles grow in disturbed areas, and though I scoured many parts of the forest, there was definitely a sweet spot where they liked to grow. A more determined wildcrafter may have had better luck, but I respectfully garnered half a grocery bag and headed home. Dear Husband had prepared a DIY herb drying rack for me in earnest of the coming seasons, so I had a place to dry whatever loot I wasn’t going to play with.
I immediately blanched about 5 tong-fuls of nettle, (if I were going by handfuls it would have been about three large), and afterword pressed the water out between two cloth napkins. I tossed the bunch into my food processor with three cloves of garlic for pesto. I make pesto quite often, and as I sometimes say, “I cook with my tongue” and not a recipe. I will do my best to fill you in. I reserved the water I used for blanching to boil my whole wheat noodles. I drizzled olive oil into the food processor and pulverized the nettle into a paste with the garlic and oil. I added a handful of walnuts and more oil, and processed. I added a squirt of fresh lemon, salt, and probably a half-cup (or more?) of freshly grated Parmesan cheese. (Die-hard cheese fan here!). Once it looked like this, (and tasted like delicious), I knew it was done:
That was yesterday…
Today… I again blanched a potful of nettles, and pressed them dry. I bought pizza dough from a local bakery, (because I worked this morning and I was tired), and spread on some homemade tomato-wonderful from our garden that I had prepared last harvest and froze. I used dollops of the leftover pesto, feta cheese and fresh (blanched) nettle as my topping. It was mighty delicious! I didn’t capture a photo because I was busy capturing a wiggly baby at bedtime, so you’ll have to use your imagination… or make one and see for yourself 🙂
I again reserved my nettle water, but this time added more nettles, a lot more, and brought them to a boil. I then simmered for 30-40 minutes on the stove top and strained it off for tea water. Nettle tea is so delicious and healthful. I had earlier made a homemade tea blend of raspberry leaf, elderflower, rosehips and lavender, so I used a bit of that tea blend and poured my nettle tea over it and made a delicious “double whammy!” I used raw honey from our backyard bees and was in some sort of tea heaven. Even DH liked the tea, which is a big deal, because he pretty much only likes things of the beer variety, like rootbeer and IPA 🙂
The rest of my loot, which wasn’t much at this point, is set to dry on my shiny new rack. I intend to gather more nettle in the coming days to tincture, infuse, and blanch/freeze for the year.
As far as culinary uses, think of nettles as you would any other green like spinach or even basil. Use them in soups, frittatas and omelets, in pesto, on pizza, in lasagne and meatloaf, in casserole and in teas. You get the idea.
Medicinally, nettle can be used for, (but not limited to):
- Seasonal allergies
- Female hormonal support
- Support in pregnancy and lactation
- Skin ailments
- Hair loss
- Arthritis, gout and rheumatism
- Fibromyalgia and tendonitis
- Liver support
- Urinary tract support
- Conditioning hair rinse
- An ingredient in body care products such as salves, balms and oils
Stinging nettle is ‘kind of a big deal!’ 🙂 As if the coming of spring wasn’t enough to smile about, the coming of the nettle is another. Early spring, just when the nettle has emerged and before it has flowered is the right time to gather the stinging nettle. Ingesting it after that point may result in an upset tummy.
Needless to say, Sweet Baby and I will be busy gathering our food in the next few weeks! If you want to join in the nettle fun, but are unable, a GREAT source for dried nettle is here.
**Remember, I am not a doctor or an expert. Nor am I a butcher, or baker, or candlestick maker, and I thoughtfully encourage you to do your own research on topics of interest to you. The remedies suggested are not a substitute for professional medical advice.
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