This is the best time of year for so many wild greens. My other favorite with Chickweed (see last blog) is Stinging Nettles (Urtica dioica). The badass, leather jacket-wearing, don’t-mess-with-me weed of wet places across the U.S. The dark green of the leaves communicates the wealth of nutrients available for those brave enough to harvest them.
The sting of Nettles can be avoided by wearing gardening gloves and long sleeves, but I also like a sting or two when I am harvesting – it makes me feel awake and alive. If my mind drifts or I am not paying attention while harvesting, that is usually when I get stung, as if the plant is reminding me to be present.
So how is this possibly an edible? Once cooked, the leaves no longer sting. Even dry they don’t technically sting, but all those tiny stinging hairs (“trichomes”) can still create a lot of itchies. And they are a delicious cooked green, like spinach but much more nutritious. But you can also eat them raw and get more of that nutritional punch.
Just how much nutrition do they have? Nettles are 25% protein, some of the highest protein of any vegetable, plus very high amounts of magnesium, calcium, Zinc, Vitamin C, Iron, and Chromium amongst others (“Nutritional Herbology,” Pederson: 1998).
The easiest way to eat nettles raw is to put it in a pesto, for example the Nettles-Chickweed Pesto recipe from last blog. You can actually take almost any edible wild green and blend it into a paste with oil to make a simple wild-foods spread, whether you add the other traditional pesto ingredients or not.
Nettles can also be cooked like spinach, and is delicious in soup or as a cooked green. For a soup, strip the leaves from the stems (with gloves) and use them just as you would spinach, but plan a longer cooking time, as they are tougher. Karen and I often add the fresh leaves in season or the dried leaves in winter when making broth or stock to add some extra umph.
They are also delicious sautéed, but they do best when you add water or broth while cooking. If you just use oil they get crispy and dry and become “nettle chips.” Not very appetizing.
Nettles can also be dried for tea, though typically I harvest for tea when the plants are taller and I can get more leaf per plant, but before they flower. This is usually late April through early June, depending on where you live and how sunny the patch is.
When making the tea, throw a handful of the dried leaves in a canning jar, fill with boiling water and cover. Then let it sit for a few hours for a “long infusion” that is so rich it is broth-like. This long infusion is considered the best blood builder in western herbalism, good for pregnant and nursing mothers, or for anyone who is nutrient deficient, especially when combined with Oatstraw (Avena sativa). Just be aware that it can be a bit of a diuretic, so not so great for long car-trips!
Now when you get stung by a stray patch of nettles down by the river, instead of being annoyed you can get excited about all the wonderful food you can make for free! In a future blog, I’ll talk more about all the wonderful medicinal effects of the tea and tincture.