Although the northern and mid sections of the US are still bitterly cold and blanketed by inches of snow or ice, the south is beginning to warm up. That means the Greening of Springtime!
Following a long winter, a plate of steaming ultra-fresh greens from the yard is a delicious and nutritious treat.While most Americans consider stinging nettles weeds, Europeans enjoy them as an early spring food that is delicious, abundant and free for the picking.
Stinging nettles are one of the first plants to green up in early spring. They pop from the ground shortly after the snow melts and are ready to harvest about the time gardeners plant spinach, lettuce and other early cultivated greens. Winding Pathways is in Iowa, and we can count on harvesting nettles by early April, but the season starts sooner in warmer climates.
Nettles grow in all states except Hawaii and are common across much of Europe, Asia and even Northern Africa. They thrive in rich moist soil where there is partial sun. Seek them on the edge of suburban lawns and along rivers and streams. Nettles have high nutritional value and are sold in tablet or liquid form in vitamin shops. As described in the International Journal of Food Science, nettle “Results show that processed nettle can supply 90%–100% of vitamin A (including vitamin A as β-carotene) and is a good source of dietary calcium, iron, and protein.”
Stinging nettles are named for numerous tiny spines that can inject a chemical into the skin. The sensation is uncomfortable but quickly fades and is not dangerous. Some people call the plant the “seven minute itch”.
Before collecting nettles, or any other wild food, for dinner be sure to positively identify the plant. Photos of nettles can be found online and are in nearly every wild food book.
There is a trick to harvesting them. Use gloves to protect the hands and scissors to snip off the top few tender leaves. Alternately, gently put your thumb and index finger just below the top few leaves and slide them up, pinching off the top, rinse and drop a few cups of them in water. A few minutes of boiling neutralizes the sting and results in a delicious high protein vegetable. Enjoy them covered with melted butter and a dash of vinegar. Save the water that nettles have been boiled in as a stock for soup or to drink as a delicious tea.
Pinching off tender young leaves encourages the plant to produce new ones, so by harvesting nettles from the same patch about every week the collecting season is prolonged. Don’t even try eating tough mature nettle leaves or stems. Early settlers once used the fibers of these rough stems to weave into a linen-like cloth.
By early summer in the upper Midwest, the nettles have “gone by”. But, we let them grow up because many species of butterflies are attracted to the yellow-greenish flowers of the nettles. Stinging nettles are a wonderful plant that we enjoy having on our property at Winding Pathways.