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Nettle

Nettles

    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 Man's Plaything.

(originally published in The Seattle Weekly, March 1997)

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Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert

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