One of my favorite things to do every Spring is to go wild crafting for stinging nettles. “Wild crafting” is a folky herbalist’s word for foraging for wild food and herbs out in nature. It is a great way to connect with Mother Nature, teach kids about the benefits of the plants around us, get some free food, and have fun. For Earth Day this year, I took my daughters to a park where I showed them how Mommy picks nettles.
I was introduced to stinging nettles as a young child when I walked through a patch and got “stung” all over my legs. I quickly learned that nettles were bad weeds to be avoided at all costs. It wasn’t until about ten years ago I learned that they are one of the most nutritious, versatile plants out there, and now I look forward to nettle season almost with the same excitment I get when the blackberries ripen. There must be something about the threat of getting pricked that I find adventurous. I’ve never quite exactly figured it out because I ALWAYS get pricked, so I’m certainly not “defeating” the plants in anyway. But I digress. I think it’s because nettles generally grow in places that require a bit of a nature walk. Lucky for me a good nettle patch happens to be next to a woodsy playground, so the jaunt gets to be fun for me and the girls too.
Nettles grow in rich fertile soil, usually near streams or bogs in areas that are both sunny and shady throughout the day. They can usally be found in places where soil has been turned up, like along a fence line, on farmland, in ditches, on the side of walking trails or in vacant lots. Once you have seen a nettle plant they become very easy to spot and usually grow in patches.
My friend Christy reminded me today that although you can often find nettles along a roadside, it is not the best place to harvest them as the plants get contaminated from car emissions.
Picking Nettles (getting stung…and the benefits of lactation)
When you pick nettles be sure to wear long pants, long sleeves, and thick gardening gloves, and cut the plants with scissors, because if you don’t, you will get stung. Trust me! When I went foraging with the girls I wore short sleeves, assuming I could be careful, but sure enough, a leaf brushed my arm. Within seconds I had a red bumpy stinging rash. In the past I usually just iced the sting when I got home or lived with the stinging sensation for a few hours, but this time I decided to try something different: breast milk. Well, I have to tell you it worked! No one was around so I squirted the milk on my arm, much to my toddler’s amusement, and once it dried it didn’t hurt anymore. Wow! Breast milk rocks!
When I took my herbalism course a number of years ago I was taught to pick the top third of the nettle plant and to only pick when it is still young, to ensure the freshest, tastiest leaves that have the highest nutritional value and best medicinal properties. Also, the plant will still be able to grow and then you can harvest it again. You can pick and eat older plants, but they tend to be more bitter and fibrous. You definitely don’t want to be eating a plant that is going to seed.
When you get your nettles home, fill a tub or your sink with cold water. Dump your nettles in. For handling them, you could wear rubber gloves but you still might get a stinger through the plastic so I usually don’t bother with the gloves and instead use tongs to handle the plants. With one hand I pick up one of the plants up with the tongs, with the other hand I snip the leaves with scissors over a bowl. You can eat the stalk but I prefer not to. It’s a little too fibrous for me.
Nettles will last in a bag in your fridge for about two weeks. As they wilt they lose their stinging capabilities but never trust a nettle plant and always handle them carefully anyway. Cooking, food processing, freezing and/or drying nettles will get rid of their sting.
Nettles are a rich green color revealing its extremely high iron and chlorophyll content. In fact, nettles contain the highest plant source of iron. Source. It is also very high in the minerals calcium, magnesium, silicon, sulphur, copper, chromium, zinc, cobalt, potassium and phosphorus. Nettles also contain high amounts of vitamins A, C, D, E, and K as well as riboflavin and thiamine. Source. Use them as you would use spinach or any other leafy green vegetable.
Medicinal Properties for Pregnant and New Moms
Dried nettle leaves are a staple in my herb cupboard. They make an excellent tasting tea and benefit the drinker in so many ways. I especially drank a lot of nettle tea during both of my pregnancies. Not only is it recommended, but it just tastes and feels so good to drink it. You can’t overdose on nettle (Think of it like spinach. Could you or would you ever OD on that?) so when making your infusion you can use as much or as little dried nettle as you want.
Susun Weed in her book, Herbal for the Childbearing Year, highly recommends drinking both nettles and raspberry leaf tea throughout pregnancy. She specifically recommends drinking nettle tea during the last month of pregnancy to insure that large amounts of vitamin K are in the blood for the birth.
Nettles are also used to increase fertility in both men and women. Due to its high calcium content, the tea is good for easing leg cramps and other muscles spasms associated with pregnancy, and also diminishes pain during and after birth.
Nettles have also been known to effectively treat bladder and kidney stones. Nettles are a powerful blood detoxifier that drives out toxins by stimulating the kidneys to excrete more water. I can feel my body being cleansed when I drink it.
Ten years ago when I was a single girl, I WWOOF‘ed (Worked on an Organic Farm) for a Spring holiday and I stayed and worked on this beautiful little farm on Galiano Island, B.C. It was there that I was introduced to nettle pesto. We used it that day to make nettle pesto cream cheese spirals, but you can use it on anything you would use regular pesto on: pizza, eggs, pasta, etc.
Here is the recipe:
3 packed cups of fresh stinging nettle
2 cloves garlic
1/2 cup raw cashews
3/4 cup fresh parsley
3/4 cup parmasan cheese
1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 cup melted butter
salt to taste
Combine all ingredients in a food processor or blender and whir until a desired consistency is reached.
Nettle Pesto and Cream Cheese Spirals
Spread a layer of cream cheese over the tortilla, then spread a layer of pesto over the cream cheese. Roll up the tortilla like you would roll up a sleeping bag, then slice into bite-size pieces. This is an easy-to-make appetizer or potluck dish. Surprise your friends by telling them they just ate weeds.
What do you like to do with nettles?