If stinging nettles bring up painful memories of childhood — or even adult — missteps on a walk through the woods, well, you’d be forgiven.
The plants got their fitting name thanks to the hairs lining their stalks and stem that sting the when brushed against the wrong way. The hollow hairs inject natural chemicals into the skin, causing that namesake sensation and, often, an inflammatory outbreak.
But there’s a kinder, gentler, more nutritious and flavorful side to nettles that’s becoming more popular and widespread. (Though populations around the world, from Native Americans to ancient Egyptians have been tapping into their goodness for ages.)
They’re easily harvested — right here in the Northwest — and can be used in everything from teas and infusions to salads, main dishes and even beer. On top of that, they’re rich in protein, fiber, calcium and iron.
In short, it may be time to give nettles another chance.
Where, when and how to find them
Nettles are widely available here in the Northwest and elsewhere. The plants tend to grow in damp, forested areas that also have a fair amount of sunlight.
Nettles spring up in — surprise — early spring and grow through the summer months into fall.
They’re best identified through respected plant identification field guides or web sites, but usually the spikey stems and stalks and are a good clue that you’re in the right place.
How to harvest them
The best time to harvest nettles is in the early spring, before they flower.
Wearing gloves, snip just the top few inches off — between four and six leaves — which ensures the plant will continue to grow throughout the rest of the season.
How to use them
At home, many wild food experts recommend cooking the nettle leaves in a pot of boiling water, which will neutralize the stinging aspect of nettles. They can they be used in the same way you would use cooked spinach.
Another method is to dry the leaves by laying them out on a paper towel or cardboard, turning them occasionally to remove all the moisture. The leaves should lose their sting in about 24 hours, according to Alderleaf Wilderness College in Seattle. This method works well when preparing nettles for teas and infusions.
But there’s no need to stop with simple salads or drinks. Nettles can be used for much more than that.
The Northwest Forager has compiled a long list of nettles recipes, from nettle soup and ravioli to smoothies and chips. And for those looking for a little more bite out of their nettles, The Guardian published a story a few years ago on how to brew nettle beer.
Photo by MarioGuti