| Nettles have an attitude. "Go ahead," they mutter, "make my
day!" One innocent casual brush of human skin on nettle leaf brings
burning pain, cursing and suffering. Nettles practiced chemical defense
long before the world's human armies devised poison gas. Because nettles
are so widespread and painfully memorable, most people know
them --even those of us who don't care about learning plant names. Nettles,
universally so called in English, are not to be confused with thistles. The
latter stab with spines but don't use poison sap to harm our skin.
| To describe nettles seems wasted words. Primal instinct teaches
us --the hard way. If by chance you've never been nettled, you really
should get thee to the nearest woods and soon enough you can experience
the thrilling heat. No other plant does it to us. The nettle plant is guarded
by minute hollow hairs which are full of itch-inducing sap. The
nettles evolved this trick to discourage grazing animals from eating them.
Other plant defenses against being eaten include spines, fuzzy leaves,
bitterness, poisons, fibers or similar objectionable properties.
| There are those who insist it is possible to pluck a nettle with bare
hands in such a way as to not be stung. Moreover, to eat the same, raw. I
smile, recalling how I longed to become vegetarian after someone assured
me "mosquitoes don't bite vegetarians." Some caterpillars dine on
nettle leaves, raw, regularly, even to exclusion --and appear none the worse
for it. I often see slug slime on nettles, too. Should you chance to be
stung, your itch will last from a few minutes to a day or so, depending on
the degree of contact and your sensitivity. Nettle "remedies" abound,
including horseradish, onions, dock sap, and plain mud. The
ancient Romans used olive oil, and Pliny the Elder
(a.d. 23 - 79) wrote in his Natural
History that the plant is "by no means a disagreeable
food." Some folks today still call it Roman Spinach.
| Nettles are circumpolar. They spread more from creeping roots
than from seed. Colonies sometimes cover acres. The tallest reach nearly 9
feet. The stems are square and leaves opposite (like a mint). In Seattle
nettles grow mostly in woods, often under alder trees, where the soil is soft
and black. They're also found in more open areas, so long as the soil is rich
and moist. The first sprouts emerge from the perennial rootstock in
late January, and are large enough to eat by March. Nettle eating,
unlike dancing barefoot on hot coals, is something thousands of people routinely do, with lip-smacking gusto.
| To gather nettles for the table, wear gloves. In one hand carry a
large paper grocery bag; in the other a pair of pruners or scissors. Nettles
from five inches to just over a foot tall are targeted, and the topmost two
or three whorls of leaves snipped directly into the bag. (The plants
regrow after being decapitated, just like a lawn after mowing.) Then return
home and steam a potful for about 2 minutes. Or
microwave the rascals on high (add a bit of water; cover the dish with waxpaper). If you haven't
cooked them quite long enough, your lips will let you know. The
tingling sensation is killed by the cooking, as the wicked witch of the North
is killed by water. Don't boil them --it is overkill.
| You can eat your resulting limp pile of dark greens as is, or season
them however you like. They are decidedly earthy in aroma, chewy,
mildly gritty in texture, with extraordinary nutritional value, especially
in protein (they rival alfalfa in this) and Vitamin A. Truly they are one of
the premier wild edible plants. The conversation value for guests at
your meal is also superb. Use nettles in any recipe where spinach is called
for. Try them with garlic, a dash of salt and a teaspoon of butter. Tossed
with Italian dressing they are good, too. And you can wrap them in
tortillas with cheese, rice and hot sauce. Nettle soup, nettle lasagne, etc., are all
fair game. Share your creations with friends. Serve them at a potluck.
Only by experimenting will you discover your favorite way to eat them.
| Why bother eating nettles? Getting spinach from the produce stand
is much simpler. Simplicity is expedient but scarcely the only
consideration. Spinach, like sorrel, should not be eaten in large quantity
or frequently because of its high oxalic acid content --overindulgence
of which can lead to formation of kidney stones. Gathering nettles
also allows city folk to ingest truly wild edibles. Think about it: how
many wild edibles do you eat? Seafood? Expensive gourmet mushrooms?
A few blackberries? The vast majority of our diet is from
domesticated plants and animals. Anthropologists studying human nutrition
throughout the world, in both present civilizations and prehistoric times,
assert that most people today eat relatively more starchy foods and
fewer vitamins, enzymes, minerals and proteins. In other words, we fill
our bellies easily but don't nourish our bodies as well as we used to.
The development of agriculture went hand in hand with a decline of
hunting and gathering subsistence. So eat some nettles for the sake of principle.
| The hard thing for most of us is not cooking or eating nettles,
but getting the nerve to go harvest them. We must overcome feelings
of hesitation or self-consciousness usual when trying unfamiliar
activities. Anyway, right now is prime time for nettles; to wait is to lose the
choicest crop. After you try nettles you may get inspired to learn about
less common wild edibles, none of which sting us. Plants of the
genus Lamium in the mint family have been called Dead Nettle, Dumb
Nettle or Blind Nettle because their harmless leaves recall those of the evil
one. And Hedge Nettle (genus Stachys) grows in wet soil and bears
showy pink or magenta flowers. These two herbs are also edible, but have
hairy leaves of muted flavor, not to mention no thrill of danger involved.
| The nettle genus is
Urtica, related closely to Cannabis (hemp)
and Humulus (hop). Nettle stem fibers can be made into thread, rope,
paper or cloth. In medicine, nettles have been used for anemia, broken
bones, heart problems, herpes, leukemia, nose bleeds, poor blood-clotting
and more. In the Language of Flowers nettles signify slander, or "You
are cruel." A quaint old English nickname for nettles is Naughty
|(originally published in The Seattle Weekly, March 1997)