The Joy of Nettles (so what if they sting)
by RM Allen June 2011
I used to be scared of nettles. They hid in the tall grass and bit my ankles when I was a child, like a monster under the bed. Now I am in love with nettles. Especially the sting. I seek it out. I linger with it like a fine wine.
In early June I went to herbalist Rosemary Gladstar’s Sage Mountain Center for a class on identifying wild plants, and then cooking them in the kitchen. My official term for this is foraging. How I love to forage! I drove all the way to Vermont for this class to hone my foraging skills. Of course it rained… but that was ok because it kept the black flies away. Did you think foraging was easy? It is more like a booby-trapped game of hide-and-seek; one has to be up for the challenge, with all the necessary gear and knowledge.
Rosemary is a sweet, small woman with long dark hair, and is known as the “godmother of American herbalism”. This rainy afternoon she was imparting her knowledge to a group of 25 of us aspiring herbalist or foragers, who had journeyed from all around the New England region. She stood in a yellow plastic rain poncho, bright yellow rain boots with a rooster print, and a delightful crayola purple felted cap that came to a jaunty point at the top of her head. This pixie hat then trailed down in several strands from the point, past her slim shoulders, where they ended in colorful pom-poms. She looked for all the world like a woodland sprite as she flitted through the mountain woods at the edge of her yard with glee, informing us (such a wet, grey, and bedraggled group) of the names and stories of a great many of my weedy friends.
I have weedy friends already because this is not my first time around the block on what is called a weed-walk. I have been on guided walks with my local herbalist Rebecca Ross of NH, Wild Foods I have Known…and Eaten author Russ Cohen of MA, and famed American herbalist Susun Weed of Woodstock,NY. Each time my knowledge grows. On this particular walk I really wanted to see Rosemary’s nettle patch. And lo, what joy -it was a beauty! A circular patch, about the size of my living room, flowed from the edge of her driveway, and down the hill off into the woods. I immediately walked over, bent down, and thrust my wrist into it. I was on a mission to get stung, and get stung good. Why?
Because the sting of the nettle (it feels like a small bee sting) causes a rush and a flush of blood. Blood rushing to an area cleans it out and supplies it with fresh nutrients. The stung area will rise into a small welt, itch for a while, buzz for hours, and still be a little sore in the morning. Which is all good, because you know it is working. It helps swollen joints, and my wrist tends to be sore from too much mousing on the computer at work. I managed to get about a half dozen welts, and I could feel the blood rushing in. Yay! Mission accomplished.
Thus stung, we moved into the kitchen for the cooking class, and guess what? Nettle was the food of the day. Are you surprised at this? Why would one want to eat a food that stings? Are foragers crazy thrill seekers? No. (Well maybe a little.)What happens is that the stinging goes away in the cooking. The nettle has a line of very fine and soft hairs under the leaves and along the stem. It is not the hair that stings, it is the acid droplets on the hair.
Rosemary stood in a teaching kitchen that reminded me of Julia Child’s set up, and assisted by her apprentice John, brought out a huge basket of nettle tips. She dumped them into a blender and made nettle pesto (she called it Nesto) the same exact way one would make basil pesto. I really was afraid that since it wasn’t technically cooked I would get stung in my mouth, or at the very least feel a slight numbness, but I did not. The taste was out of this world! She also cooked up: a thick stew of nettle, onion, garlic and potato; a nettle, cheese, buckwheat and wild herb casserole; wild herbs and ginger spring rolls; dandelion and rice seaweed wraps; and also chopped up all sorts of weeds and tossed them into a giant bowl of traditional salad greens. We feasted!
Nettles are one of the best things you can ingest. They are loaded with vitamins, minerals, and amino acids – and exceptionally rich calcium and vitamin A. Ancient Roman records show that nettle was the most widely cultivated crop in the empire. It is still a cultivated crop in many parts of the world. Not only is it a powerhouse food, but the durable stalks can be used to weave ropes or clothing. Indeed, you can eat your food and wear it too! The soft tips are the yummy part, and those can usually only be had in early spring. Otherwise, you can get dried nettles and make a strong tea to reap the benefits all year round. Or you can chop fresh nettles in season, add a little water, and keep them in the freezer.
As it is early spring and prime nettle time, I foraged around back home here in NH to try to find some growing in the wild. And I did! Only three plants, not sure it rates official “patch” status, but I know where they are and I will keep them safe. Joyfully, I will occasionally pay a visit to my hairy friends, and get a wrist flogging. Let me know if you need a flogging too, and we will oblige. Isn’t that what friends are for?
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