The Nature of Nettles
Article Written by MaryJane Butters
Nature never ceases to amaze me with its boundless ability to feed, soothe, and cure us - if only we open our senses to its possibilities. Part of discovering nature's nurturing qualities as contemporary humans is seeking out the lessons learned by those who have blazed trails before us. Over eons, people have fumbled their way through the woods, enduring scrapes, bruises, stomach aches, and even death in order to figure out how the vast diversity of wild-growing wonders can actually benefit our existence. A few of these "wonders" would seem pretty unlikely to the first-time observer. Take, for instance, the stinging nettle. If you've ever been unfortunate enough to innocently swipe a bit of bare skin past the leaves or stem of the stinging nettle, you probably came away from the experience with a nasty, burning rash and an even nastier opinion of the plant that "bit" you. The stinging sensation from the chemical irritants on the nettle's needle-like hairs can persist for up to a week - no fun.
After one encounter with nettles, most of us stick to our first impression: steer clear of it. But there are lessons to be learned from our pioneering predecessors who dared to get even more intimate with the nettle than most of us would deem sensible. As it turns out, people have been using nettles for food, medicine, fiber, and gorgeous green dye for ages. When consumed, nettles are said to aid in allergy relief, purify the blood, soothe headaches, treat asthma and chronic coughs, dissolve kidney stones, treat high blood pressure and anemia, expel toxins from the body, relieve skin inflammations, and beautify the skin and hair. Who knew? I imagine it must have taken a whopping dose of bravery or sheer desperation for the first wandering soul to actually ingest a nettle plant!
Thanks to the experimentation of our ancestors, we now know that there are simple ways to safely prepare and consume stinging nettles, and that there are incredible benefits from doing so. Research has shown that the plant boasts notable levels of vitamins A and C as well as health-boosting minerals like calcium, magnesium, iron, potassium, phosphorous, manganese, iodine, and sulfur. It even packs a heck of a protein punch. And the sting? No worries. As soon as the plant is simmered or steamed, the stinging hairs are rendered harmless.
Identification and Harvest
Native to North America, stinging nettles often grow as weeds in moist places like creek and pond banks throughout the United States. The nettle plant has erect stems up to 4 feet tall with opposite, heart shaped, coarsely-toothed leaves. Both leaves and stems are covered with hairlike bristles. Luckily, they aren't likely to be confused with poisonous plants, but if you're not sure what nettles look like, take a peek at the photos on naturalist Steve Brill's website (www.wildmanstevebrill.com).
Nettle leaves should be gathered before the plants flower in spring (or when a new crop of nettles pops up in the fall). Wearing gloves and long sleeves, clip the top two bracts of tender, young leaves (about 6 inches of the plant) with scissors, allowing the plant to regenerate for future harvests. You can hold a container under the plant so that clipped leaves fall right in. It only takes about a cup of fresh leaves to brew a couple cups of tea, but excess leaves can be dried and bagged for later use.
Nettle leaves are versatile and can be substituted in virtually any dish that calls for steamed greens. Think Frittatas, casseroles, soups, and beyond. Another easy way to enjoy the concentrated nutrients and mild flavor of nettles is in the form of tea. Nettle tea has long been revered as a spring tonic, in part because it helps freshen the airways and sinuses. Preparing it is simple: when you get back to kitchen or campfire, toss a cup of freshly picked leaves into about 2 cups of water, and heat almost to boiling. Remove from heat and steep for 5 minutes, then strain the liquid into a teacup. Add a little lemon and honey, and enjoy a lovely lift in body and spirit.
Unable to "walk on the wild side" in search of fresh nettles? Stock up on dried nettle leaf and leaf powder instead. Irene Wolansky of Mountain Rose Herbs says, "My preferred way of preparing dried nettles is with an herbal infusion. Place a handful in a glass quart jar, pour boiling water over them, cap the jar, and let them sit overnight. In the morning, strain the mixture, and drink throughout the day. Drinking nettle infusion always makes me feel energized and nourished - and it tastes delicious."
You can buy bulk organic nettle leaf and nettle leaf powder at www.mountainroseherbs.com.
Pack into glass mason jars with the fresh tender tops of nettle plants, and completely cover with vinegar. Add Peppercorns, peeled Garlic cloves, hot peppers, fresh herbs, or any other flavors that you desire. Cap tightly, and refrigerate for 8-12 weeks.
Enjoy pickled nettles sprinkled over salads, with crackers and cheese, or as a fun garnish for hors d'oeuvres. The remaining vinegar will be calcium and mineral rich, so be sure to incorporate it into salad dressings, marinades, stir fries, and sauteed vegetables. You can even apply it as a hair rinse to cleanse and nourish the hair and scalp! Who knew?