Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Foraging Stinging Nettles

I'm not a masochist in any way. Yet I eat thorns. Milk thistle that is.
And one of my favorite foraged plants is a plant that makes sure to sting you every time you try to pick it unless you are extremely careful. And one time, I actually specifically tried to get stung by it- can you imagine?

I had read about nettles probably something like 3 or 4 years ago on an herbalist's blog that I was reading. She couldn't stop talking about all the amazing medicinal benefits of nettle, and I had never seen it in my area, so I assumed that was yet another thing from my native North America that I miss out on by living where I do, far away from my native shores...
Imagine my surprise when I first started looking into foraging locally last year and found out that nettles DO grow in my country, and that they've been used by the indigenous people in my region as a food source for ages. (Nettles grow on every continent in the world.) I saw some pictures, and kept my eye out, but I never was able to spot that elusive plant.
Oh well.

One day though, I was in town, and poking between the fence of a yard, I saw a plant that I thought was nettle, but I wasn't sure. It had been months since I'd last seen a picture of nettles on a foraging blog, so I called up a friend and asked her to search Google for a picture of stinging nettles and then describe to me what they looked like.
"Green leaves on an upright stem, with each leaf having toothed edges. " Ok, that seemed about right, but how would I know for certain if that really was stinging nettle?
By it's sting!
I rubbed my finger over the leaves and- oh boy- did I get a sting! No doubt about it, that was stinging nettle I had in front of me.


Because that stinging nettle was on private property, I went to the house that was there and knocked, asking permission to pick the nettles growing there.
The owner was more than happy to let me take as much of that plant as I wanted- it was a nuisance to him, after all, but wanted to know what exactly I planned on doing with it, and why on earth I'd want to pick it. I told him about nettle's amazing nutritive and medicinal qualities, and it intrigued him, but he still decided he'd never actually pick it, and I could help myself.
I filled up a giant shopping back with nettles (getting stung all the while) and made some really delicious food with those nettles.

Of course, I never found nettles growing locally. But each time I'd go to the city during nettle season, I'd search for stinging nettles to bring home to my house, because they are such a versatile and nutritious green, not to mention pretty tasty!

About a week before I gave birth, my mom was on a trip with my siblings to a park with a stream, and she told me that all along the water were so many different edible plants. People had come to the park to graze their goats, and much of the wild edibles had been munched on by the goats, but there was a gigantic patch of nettles untouched, as the goats didn't want to deal with the stings...
My mother, very lovingly, picked a bunch nettles (getting stung in the process) for me and brought them when she came to visit.
I took the lot and threw them in a pot of chicken soup- delicious!

A few days ago, my mom came by yet again with a bunch of nettles that she found in the city in an abandoned lot. She brought me a bunch of nettles with the roots still attached. I cut off the stems and leaves and cooked them up, leaving the roots intact with a few inches of stem. I then planted those roots in my window box planters and now, a few days later, I have little nettle plants growing on my windowsill! Look how cute those tiny little nettles are!
Once I got more nettles growing, I plan on doing some guerrilla gardening and secretly planting nettles locally (in places where people don't usually walk so I don't contribute to people getting stung) so that I don't have to travel far to get my nettles, and so that they can start spreading on their own, further than they'd be able to in my window box.


So, now that I told you about my nettle back story, you may be wondering why I'm willing to go through the hassle of picking something that'll sting me, and of replanting it so I can have it locally. Why is it worth the bother?

First off, there's the nutritional aspect.
Nettles are a real superfood. They have the highest amount of iron of any vegetable, and they have high levels of easily absorbable amino acids- they are 10% protein, more than any other vegetable! Additional nutritional benefits are due to their really high levels of calcium, magnesium, potassium, phosphorus, manganese, silica, iodine, silicon, sodium, and sulfur. They have chlorophyll and tannin, and are a good source of vitamin C, vitamin D, E, K, beta-carotene, B complex vitamins, and lots of antioxidants.  It also contains chlorine, copper, and silica.
(See here for more about its nutritional benefits.)

Then, there's also the medicinal aspect of nettles.
Nettle work to fight against bacterial and vital infections. They are anti inflammatory, and they work as a powerful remedy against hepatic, arthritic or rheumatic conditions, and are helpful in treating allergies, anemia and kidney diseases. They also work as an anti diabetic and diuretic. Nettle juice is said to help hypertension.
Nettles also are galactogogues- they increase milk production in nursing moms! (Not that I have a problem with that...)
Nettles in general also help strengthen the immune system.
And did you know, if you have arthritis, getting "whipped" with the stinging nettles will actually help with arthritic pain?
Nettles contain seratonin in them, which is beneficial to people who suffer from depression.
(See here for more info about its medicinal benefits.)

But all that aside, I like FOOD.

How does nettle work as a food?
The first time my mom picked nettles for me, she asked me "Penny, why do you want to eat this? I tried putting it in my mouth and it stung the inside my mouth!"
Well duh.
Nettle chicken breast meatballs on
homemade whole wheat noodles
You don't do that.
One thing you don't want to do with nettles is just pop them raw into your mouth. You definitely don't want to be making a raw nettle salad.
Not unless you're a masochist, that is.
No, stinging nettles are not to be eaten raw.
Nettle leaves and stems are covered with tiny hairs that inject you with certain stinging chemicals when you touch them, but if you cook, dry, or blend them before eating them, you won't get stung.

Nettles taste rather spinachy, but in my opinion, a little more "fresh" and less heavy, especially if you pick younger plants.
You can use nettles as you would any greens. I've made them:
Mixed with a white sauce inside stuffed cannolini. This was my favorite use ever!
Mixed with ground chicken breast to make chicken nettle meatballs.
Mixed with wild fennel and wood sorrel and stuffed inside the cavity of a chicken. Totally, totally awesome.
In chicken vegetable soup.
In tea.
As creamed nettle with onions, garlic, and salt.
Infused in vodka to make a yummy, medicinal infusion.
Into beer, by making it into a tea, adding sugar and yeast, and letting it ferment.

You can also use nettles to make pesto, in stews, in casseroles, in quiches, in lasagna, in tomato sauce, in curries. You name it, you can use nettles in it, pretty much!

So, how do you identify, pick, and prepare nettles?
Well, I've given you clues throughout this post already, but I'll summarize it over here and add a few more details.
The leaves have toothed edges- their edges are zigzagged and pointy.
The leaves grow up on a tall stem, directly from the stem, opposite from each other.
Leaves can either be oval or heart shaped, and narrower or thicker, shorter or longer depending on the species of nettle.

The best way to identify nettle are via the tiny translucent hairs growing on the top of their leaves. If you look closely at the nettle leaves in the picture here to the right, you might see those hairs, and you certainly can see those hairs if you look at nettles closely in real life... and you can definitely FEEL the sting from those hairs if you touch them with your bare skin.
There are no poisonous look alikes to nettle. If they've got that sting and the serrated edges, there's no doubt about it- they're nettles and they're edible and nutritious.

When nettles are tiny and short (under 6 inches tall), their sting is less strong and their stems are pretty much free from stinging hairs, so if you want to pick them, you can just grab the lower part of the stems, avoiding touching the leaves, and you will be able to pick them without getting stung.
Once nettles are a bit bigger, their stems will get thicker and will develop hairs along their stems, so you'll need to exercise more care when picking them- you'll want to wear a glove, otherwise you'll get stung and develop a painful rash. If you get a rash from nettles, if your skin is stinging, spreading it with plantain (plantago species, not the banana type thing) or jewelweed (another wild plant) juice will take away the sting and heal the rash. If you don't have access to that wild medicine, calomine lotion will help.

Once you've picked your nettles, wash them and chop them carefully, then prepare as desired. When using small plants, you can use the stems as well as the leaves. If using really large plants, the stem may be too fibrous to be edible.



Have you ever been stung by nettles before? Did you know they were edible? Did you know about their immense amount of nutrition and tremendous medicinal value that makes them a superfood? Have you ever eaten anything made with nettles? If so, what?
Have you ever seen nettle growing in your area? Do you recognize this plant?
Do you think you'd have the guts to pick it and brave potential stings?
Have you ever done any guerrilla gardening and transplanted wild edibles from one place to another? What did you transplant?

4 comments:

  1. I use gloves and long sleeves when harvesting these guys. I highly recommend you do the same, unless you like the stings. I kinda do sometimes. It's weird. I like the 'tingliness' I feel after awhile.

    ReplyDelete
  2. ok, I will give it a try. Do I just pick them, wash them, and pour boiling water over them to make tea?

    ReplyDelete
  3. haha hey very interesting posts,
    im from morocco
    and we have all types of nettles here
    but nt all of them are angry, there is a type that isnt tha stingy !!
    hadnt tried it yet, but im very curious !!!!
    they grow everywhere here !!!
    i guess i will subtiture spinachs by these !!

    ReplyDelete
  4. Nettles are really good for hair growth, as well. An herbalist told me that she suffered from hair loss around the time of menopause and began drinking nettle tea daily and her hair grew back to its healthful state.

    ReplyDelete

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