Accounts of stinging nettles are far from uncommon in the wild foods literature; likewise, stinging nettle soup is sold in more than a few restaurants—such that some wild foods neophytes like Gregg’s little sister Caity have more experience with the plant than I do, isolated as I am in high-mountain Colorado. For me, then, finding a small colony of nettles growing out of a culvert in Woodstock, New York last week was cause for great celebration.
I tried nettles on one other occasion three years ago, when, at the end of my cross-country journey to Colorado, I found myself alone and foodless save for a grocery bag full of nettles (which miraculously made it four days without refrigeration in the back seat of my car from State College, PA where it was gifted to me by a friend). This was before my newfound obsession with wild edible plants, and I worried about getting sick as I stripped and boiled the prickly leaves in the unfamiliar kitchen that has since become my own. (Everything turned out fine, though I can’t honestly say I relished the nettles at that moment. Funny what fear can do to the taste buds!)
Urtica Dioica and Relatives
In his entry on the Delaware Nature Society blog, Joe Sebastiani gives the following description of Urtica dioica: “The leaves are egg-shaped, with a heart-shaped base, are coarsely-toothed, and are opposite one another on the stem. The stem and leaves are covered with stiff, bristly, stinging hairs.” (If you’re looking for a succinct overview of identifying, harvesting, and preparing nettle soup, Sebastiani’s entry is a good place to start.)
There are other Urticas that qualify as stinging nettles, including U. gracilis and U. lyallii, believed by some (but not all) botanists to be native to North America, in contrast with U. dioica that was introduced by European settlers (Thayer, 2006). Stinging nettles are found throughout North America, but, as Thayer notes, “are uncommon or absent in the high mountains of the West, the dry plains, and the far north.”
“Wildman” Steve Brill says to collect nettles before they flower because “they may be bad for the kidneys after they flower.” I couldn’t find anything on kidneys in Thayer (2006), but he does say that nettles are at their prime in spring when the leaves have a purplish tint, and that they become tough and fibrous after reaching a certain height. For the many health benefits of consuming stinging nettles, see Brill’s old-school yet informative website.
Quick Sting, Quick Fix
Finding myself without an identification guide on our leisurely stroll in Woodstock last week, then, I resorted to identification by self-sting-infliction. Gregg and Aurora must have thought me brave (or loony) when I reached my arm into the patch and brought the fleshy underside of it into contact with a prickly stem—but I had seen jewelweed, the antidote, nearby, so please don’t think I’m some sort of macho woodsman like Samuel Thayer who harvests the plant with his bare hands. (Actually, Thayer doesn’t want you to think he’s macho, either, but he does describe a technique for bare-handed nettle collection in Forager’s Harvest if you’re interested.)
The sting was uncomfortable so I quickly harvested some young jewelweed plants, crushing them whole in the palm of my hand and applying them to my stinging arm, which cured the pain almost instantly. Brill says that plantain or dock will also work to stop the stinging.
After our discovery we went back to the house to get gloves for the harvest, though the effort turned out to be pointless in the end, as the gloves had mesh on top and I ended up stinging my fingers through them anyway. I gathered a bag of nettles—leaves, stems, and all—and stuffed them into the cooler bag for later use, much to the curiosity of dog-walking passersby.
Cook Nettles Prior to Eating
The Woodstock nettles made it up to Ithaca, New York, and then down to Gregg’s dad’s house in Pennsylvania before they made it into my stomach—and this time it was a close call, as some of the plants were starting to dissolve by the time I acquired rubber gloves and set about to stripping the leaves off the stems and cooking them.
A short steam or boil renders the stingers sting-free almost instantly. While Brill prefers a waterless steaming method, saying that boiling “is awful,” I boiled my nettles for 10 minutes and found them very much to my liking. They were a tad woolly, but definitely a substantial and easy-to-prepare side dish with the simplest of preparation methods. I look forward to one day experimenting with more complicated recipes, such as the culinary delights found in Langdon Cook’s blog, Fat of the Land: Adventures of a 21st Century Forager.
“I think I might like stinging nettles better than spinach,” Gregg said after trying them. This surprised the heck out of me, because Gregg loves spinach. His dad liked them too—and can I just say that I very much appreciate his dad’s willingness to entertain my hobby, both by trying my wild concoctions and for the use of his kitchen.
After dinner we drank the cooking water like tea. Rather than a traditional tea, Brill describes stinging nettle tea as “more like a strong stock of a rich, deep, green plant essence.” Gregg’s sister Wendy thought it tasted like artichokes, and I agree. You might not think artichoke tea sounds very appetizing, but I have been craving it ever since!
People Who Don’t Cook Nettles Prior to Consumption
People who don’t cook nettles prior to consumption are plumb crazy—but there quite a few individuals who fit that description. However, aside from the totally naïve, they fall exclusively into the category of the masochistic participants in the annual World Stinging Nettle Eating Championship. Each year, a group of hardy souls get together at the Bottle Inn in Marshwood in the U.K. to see who can eat the most raw nettle leaves. The record-holder ate 76 feet (measured by the length of the stripped stalks) in 2002. According to Harry Mount’s account of the 2009 contest, winner Mike Hobbs’ “hands and face [were] stung so much that they turned black. His mouth went green and flowed with boric acid, the poison that nettles inject into the skin. His throat was so badly stung that he couldn’t speak for two days.” Awesome!
Nettles as Far as the Eye Can See
Yesterday I hiked with Gregg’s family in southeast Pennsylvania’s John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum outside of Philadelphia. Plant collection is not allowed, nor would you want to, as the wetlands have suffered decades of severe pollution from numerous sources, including oil pipelines, sewage overflows, and a landfill, to name a few. So you can imagine my frustration to discover acres upon acres of stinging nettles there, stretching for as far as the eye could see. It makes sense to me now how restaurants can find enough nettles to serve as soup—the stuff must be very plentiful in areas I have yet to discover.
To think some folks are so lucky as to have forests of stinging nettles at their disposal!
Filed under: edible
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