“What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.”
- Ralph Waldo Emerson
Welcome to the third post in the Wonderfully Wild series! If you missed the first two plants you can find them here.
The Wonderfully Wild series is designed to share with you some thoughts on using wild, foraged plants in your family's meals and medicines. Plants that offer us so much more than their cultivated counterparts!
A series written in real-time as the season unfolds. Nothing overwhelming or too technical, but just some simple herbs and roots and fruits you can enjoy to get your feet wet (sometimes literally!) with wild edibles and medicinals.
Today we're moving on to one of my favorite plants my favorite of all time: nettle.
I know what you're thinking. But it's true! I adore this plant. Once you get past nettle's, um, sharper side she's all minerals and magic.
Nettle (Urtica dioica)
If I could only forage one food for the rest of my days I think I would choose nettle. Yes, nettle! That stinging plant you despise when you stumble into a patch of it in woods? It's my favorite wild plant of all time. Here is why.
What's so great about nettle? According to Rosemary Gladstar, a quart of nettle tea contains more than 1000 milligrams of calcium, 15000 IU of vitamin A, 760 milligrams of vitamin K, 10% protein, and "lavish amounts" of most B vitamins.
Nettle ain't messin' around.
- It's a nutritional powerhouse! Think of it as a green multivitamin. Iron, magnesium, zinc, calcium… the list goes on and on.
- It's a natural, gentle energizer. Perfect for days you feel rung-out and run-down.
- Helpful for muscle aches and growing pains
- Natural treatment for PMS
- Helpful for treating seasonal allergies (freeze-dried capsules are best)
- Liver and kidney tonic
- Fabulous nervous system soother
- Great for hair and scalp care
To identify nettle in the field we'll look for it's key distinguishing characteristics. Use the photographs below as a guide.
Unless you're a sucker for pain, always identify nettle without touching, as the hairs covering the stem and leaves will release formic acid when touched! Ouch.
To make nettle ID slightly more challenging there are two types: stinging nettle and wood nettle. One or the other is likely more common where you live, depending on soil type and climate. I'll address each separately, beginning with stinging nettle.
Stem: Like the catnip we recently identified, nettle has a square stem. Unlike catnip and other mints, the stem is covered in small prickly hairs. Look closely to see them.
Leaves: The leaves pack less punch (sting-wise) than the stem but the hairs that cover them will still sting. Leaves emerge opposite along the stem (in pairs, one on one side and one on the other) and are elongated and pointed.
The leaf margin (edge) is toothed, teeth are more pointed than those we saw in catnip.
Leaf texture: The leaves are coarse and slightly scratchy, with obvious veining.
Growth: Stinging nettle will often grow in great clumps in full sun to partial shade, spreading readily.
Look-alikes: Once you identify the sharp hairs along nettle's leaves and stem you'll find no convincing look-alikes.
Also the sting is a great way to be sure you have the right plant, if you're self-sacrificing.
Stem: Wood nettle (like stinging nettle) has a square stem covered in prickly hairs.
Leaves: Wood nettle leaves are a pointed round to oval shape. The leaf margin (edge) is toothed with smaller teeth than common stinging nettle.
Lower portions of the plant will show leaves branching alternate (one leaf on one side, and another single leaf emerging further up the plant) while upper parts are opposite.
Leaf texture: Leaves are softer and thinner than stinging nettle and a more delicate, lighter green. Veining is not as deep as stinging nettle but still visible.
Growth: Wood nettle is found in great patches of same-height plants in shady forest areas, often knee- to waist-high. Don't wander in without long pants!
Look-alikes: Wood nettle somewhat resembles catnip, though the leaf and stem texture are different and the toothed leaf margins are more pointed on nettle. I find wood nettle's sting to be much worse that stinging nettle, so pick with care!
How to Harvest
Nettle harvest requires a bit of special care.
While some of us crazy foragers pick nettle bare-handed, it's a good idea to pick while wearing garden or work gloves, long sleeves and long pants.
In a pinch I often pick with plastic bags slipped over my hands as makeshift gloves. A kitchen towel also works for holding stems while you harvest or prepare to cook.
Always pick nettle before it begins to flower or set seed. (The flowers and seeds are little crumbly clusters between the leaves near the top of the plant. You'll see them.)
The topmost leaves are the most tender and nutritious and have the best texture and flavor. However for tea I'm a bit less discriminating and take larger lower leaves as well.
Break the stem off below the top three to four leaf pairs and place in your harvesting bag. When you get home, vigorously rinse in cold water to remove most of the stingers.
Tea: Nettle makes an outstanding tea. I add it to most of my tea blends simply for the minerals and nutrients it provides.
We love to drink nettle tea when we're feeling worn down or stressed. Just last week I made Lupine a tea blend with nettle, catnip, wild mint, and a few other foraged plants to ease her through a rocky morning. It worked like magic.
Try my nettle chai to be truly wowed by this nourishing wild plant.
To dry nettle for tea, tie together small bundles of nettle by the stems and hang to dry from your ceiling or rafters out of the sun in a dry place.
Alternately you can place the leaves in a paper bag, fold over, and set in a warm dry place. (Or, quickest of all, use your food dehydrator!)
Be sure your leaves are completely dry, crisp, and crumbly before jarring up for winter teas or you'll find mold and have a wasted harvest.
Sauteed: Nettle leaves are delicious sauteed and used in place of other cooked greens in any recipe. The texture is more grainy however, and it it can take some folks a while to warm up to it.
Tincture: If you aren't' crazy about herbal tea or cooked greens you can still benefit from nettle's medicinal properties with a tincture. Instructions to make your own are below.
Want nettle recipes? Of course you do. Because sometimes it feels insane to punt when you're standing in your kitchen with a bundle of leaves burning your arms. Why reinvent the wheel?
I shared a round-up of recipes here, and so did Huffington Post.
And be sure to try my nettle chai to be truly wowed by this nourishing wild plant.
Freshly harvested nettle leaves
Menstruum (extracting liquid) of your choice (see below)
Wearing gloves, finely chop fresh nettle leaves. Make certain the leaves are not damp or wet.
Fill a 1/2 pint mason jar 2/3 full with loosely packed leaves, then cover with the menstruum of your choice.
The menstruum is the liquid into which the plant medicine will be infused. Your choices are many. I prefer brandy, but there are other options as well.
80-proof. Produces a potent tincture with a milder flavor. One dose of tincture made with brandy contains less alcohol than a ripe banana!
100-proof. Also effective to extract plant medicines, but makes for a harsher tincture.
Raw, apple-cider variety. Effective menstruum but makes for a weaker tincture. Increase tincture dosage by 1/2 if exacting in vinegar. Gently warm vinegar before pouring over herbs.
A by-product of the commercial soap-making industry, glycerin is my last choice for tincture making, but many herbalists love it for remedies for children because it is alcohol-free and sweet-tasting. If using mix 1 part glycerin with 1 part water before pouring over herbs. Increase tincture dosage by 1/2 if exacting in glycerin.
After the leaves are covered with liquid, continue filling the jar until full (there should be approximately 2" of liquid above the leaf layer.) Ensure that the herbs are not sticking out of the liquid or they will mold. (My mom suggests adding a well-washed rock to the top to hold the leaves below the surface of the liquid. Perfect. Thanks, Mom!)
Cover with a tight lid. Place the jar in a dark cupboard and allow it to steep (or macerate) for up to two months. Shake the jar gently whenever you think of it, daily is best.
Strain your tincture through cheesecloth, being sure to squeeze out any excess medicine from the leaves. Transfer the strained liquid to a clean, dry jar or dropper bottle, label, and store in a dark cupboard when not in use. Keeps almost forever!