Nettlesome Foraging, Week Ending 5/12/2019

I recently discovered a veritable nettle bounty grows less than a mile from my house!

I first located stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) in the woods nearby in early spring last year. I was very excited since stinging nettle is one of the “classic” wild foraged edibles. People even harvest it to sell farmer’s markets because of its cachet in the local food movement. Stinging nettle is best harvested early in the spring – earlier than pictured here – when the tops are at their youngest and most tender. If you’re going to eat them, that is. Stinging nettles can be used for tea long after they are too tough to eat.

A carpet of stinging nettles
A carpet of stinging nettles

The jagged leaves growing opposite each other on the stem look similar to members of the mint family. But there is no doubt which plant it is if you bravely – or accidentally – touch the hairs on the stem.

I have read that drying stinging nettle removes the infamous bite from the stems. Personally, I find that even dried leaves retain some sting, making them unpleasant to handle. The best approach, in my opinion, is to dunk them in boiling water, and simmer a few minutes before draining.

Boiling stinging nettle
Boiling stinging nettle

Boiling the stinging nettle offers two benefits. You precook the greens for future use in recipes. And if you carefully strain the cooking water into a separate container instead of letting it go down the drain, you have stinging nettle tea as well! I store the intensely-green colored liquid in the fridge to drink cold as a pick-me-up, or warm for a tonic. Stinging nettle tea both looks and tastes like spring.

Emerald green stinging nettle tea
Emerald green stinging nettle tea

This year, I also discovered local Canadian wood nettle (Laportea canadensis). Technically I “found” it late last autumn, when foraging for pawpaws. As I searched the forest floor for fallen fruit, I would periodically get stung by dead or dying stalks of something. The stalks seemed to be everywhere.

Turns out they are everywhere this spring as well. Comparing the shapes of the leaves against those of stinging nettle, I had this sudden thought that maybe I had found wood nettle. Wood nettle has rounder leaves than the more famous stinging nettle.

Canadian Wood Nettle
Canadian Wood Nettle

I brushed one with my index finger to confirm its stinging nature, and sure enough, it let me have it! The burning sensation continued longer than I liked, so I tried my first ever spit poultice. Guys, this is gross but it actually worked. I found a broad leaf plantain, chewed part of a leaf and then put the resulting wet mess on the sting. I then wrapped the rest of the leaf around the finger to help hold the spit poultice in place. The burning disappeared almost immediately, and after half a minute the only memory of the experience was the leaf wrapped around my finger.

I did not have any harvesting equipment (aka gloves and a bag) with me at the time, so I cannot tell you how wood nettle tastes. I read it tastes even better as a cooked green than stinging nettle, and I hope to be able to report on that by next week. Unfortunately, I am currently suffering from an embarrassment of vegetables (mostly wild) for cooked green veggies, and I fear a family rebellion if I serve too many too soon!

Apparently there is also an “American nettle”, Urtica gracilis, that grows in Maryland according to the Maryland Biodiversity Project. But I haven’t found that yet, and might not depending on its typical growing habitat.

Also, it’s worth mentioning that stinging nettle and wood nettle are not related to purple deadnettle (Lamium purpureum), which I discussed a few months ago. Purple deadnettle actually is a member of the Mint family. The “dead” in its common name reflects the fact that it does not sting, unlike the other nettles discussed this week.

Have you ever eaten a plant that fights back?


      • I put too much salt in mine and then dried it so it was really only useful as stock cubes! It is supposed to be very nutritious though. I may have a go again at just drying nettles though. Most of the nutrition without the mess!

  1. I tried making some today ….it has a real pick me up quality about it !Lovely post 😀

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