Walk on the Wild Side
Foraging for Nettles
With the globalization of our food system, fruits and vegetables that were once limited to their local growing season are now shipped from countries with more advantageous climates, allowing tomatoes, avocados, and asparagus to be available year-round. However, long transit and storage times often dramatically reduce nutrient contents, leaving less of the essential vitamins and minerals that fruits and vegetables are so highly touted for. One solution many people are turning to is foraging for wild foods. In springtime’s backyard bounty, stinging nettle is one of foraging’s biggest superstars. While this aptly named plant may evoke bad memories from painful run-ins during childhood hikes or camping trips, when handled properly, stinging nettle is full of nutritive and medicinal properties, is easy to find and harvest, and can be effortlessly incorporated into your favorite dishes.
Spinach and kale are often considered the “superfoods” of the leafy green family, but nettle is in a class by itself. One cup of nettles has three times the recommended daily allowance for calcium and magnesium, making it powerful in the fight against osteoporosis and aids in lessening cramps and muscle spasms (1). They also contain double the RDA for iron, helpful for boosting blood in those with anemia (2). For those with skin conditions, nettle can be extremely helpful, as they exceptionally high in vitamin A, which works to calm eczema, psoriasis, and other dermatological problems. Cold and flu season is great time to utilize the medicinal properties of nettles, because the abundance of vitamin C enhances the body’s antioxidant defenses. Its effect on sneezing and wheezing doesn’t stop there. In addition to cold busting, freeze-dried nettles are commonly used to mitigate the effect of seasonal allergies, thanks to their high histamine content. The histamines enter the blood and act as messengers that help to regulate the immune response that usually causes allergy symptoms (5). Nettles have a higher protein content than traditional leafy greens (3) and are rich in iodine, which can benefit thyroid health (4). Mild diuretic effects can also help to tonify kidneys, purify blood and prevent kidney stones and anti-inflammatory properties act to lessens symptoms of arthritis (6). Used as a food or an herb, this powerful plant packs a serious punch.
Nettles are found across the continental US and Alaska, and flourish in temperate climates like the Pacific Northwest. They are best picked in the spring, while they are still tender, from plants under a foot tall. New York naturalist and environmental educator, Wildman Steve Brill warns that consumption of nettles after they’ve flowered could have ill-effects on kidneys (7). Taller, more mature plants are also thought to produce gastrointestinal discomfort. A new crop also pops up in the fall, and Brill claims that those are good for picking until the first frost hits. Forest areas and wooded trails are teeming with nettles, and anywhere you find blackberry brambles you will likely also find the bright, jagged edged plants. To protect from the sting of the leaves’ stickers, called trichomes, long sleeves and gloves are advised. Gently snip or pinch off the top two to three rows of leaves and place into bowl or colander. When you return home, either allow leaves to dry for use in teas, or quickly blanch leaves by boiling them for two minutes then submerge into an ice bath. Both methods will remove the trichomes, thus remove the stinging properties and render them ready for consumption.
Blanched nettles can be an easy substitute for spinach or other greens in traditional recipes, such as omelets, soufflés, and lasagnas. Switching out nettles for basil in pesto makes a wonderfully woody, nutty tasting sauce. Adding pureed, blanched nettle leaves to a simple potato leek soup can make for a delightful spring supper (8). Dried nettles can be added to filtered or tap water and left to seep overnight, then strained in the morning for a cold-brewed nutritive beverage reminiscent of green tea. Leaves can also be boiled for 5-10 minutes and strained to make a hot tea.
Forego a walk down the produce aisle for a stroll in nearby parks, trails or even alleyways. Harvesting and eating nettles can reduce your grocery bill, increase nutrient intake and introduce new dimensions to your favorite dishes. Foraging is a fun, sustainable and free way to supplement store-bought vegetables with local, fresh, seasonal wild foods. Strap on your walking shoes or hiking boots, grab a pair of kitchen shears and open up a world of new flavors.