As soon as a few warm days arrive early each spring we search our yard at Winding Pathways for two of our favorite plants – Stinging Nettles and Dandelions.
To most people they’re weeds. To us they’re delicious yard gifts.
Stinging nettles are one of the tastiest of all wild greens. They begin growing very early each spring and are usually ready to pick about the time when gardeners plant spinach and lettuce. In Iowa that’s sometime in April. Nettles love moist soil at the edge of woods where they receive partial shade. Often they’re common on yard edges. Nettles are well named, because they can sting! Another name for the plant is “three minute itch”, because the slight stinging sensation is just temporary. There’s a way to avoid the “itch.”
We pick nettles when they are only a couple of inches tall. To avoid the sting, we either wear light gloves or carefully pluck off the top few leaves between the thumb and forefinger. About 100 leaves are plenty for dinner for the two of us. We bring the plucked nettles into the kitchen, rinse them well, and boil them for just a few minute. It’s really more like steaming them as we only put about a half inch of water in the pan. Once steamed the sting disappears. Put a dollop of butter on them with a sprinkle of vinegar and enjoy as the year’s first green crop.
We continually pick from the same nettle patch and each plant constantly creates new leaves at the growing tip. This extends the picking season for over a month, and by then our spinach is ready to harvest from the garden. For the rest of the growing season, foraging insects enjoy the nectar of the nettles.
Almost everyone knows that dandelions are edible but most people who try them quickly toss the bitter plants out and never try again. Take heart and try again! Dandelions are revered in many eastern cities where Italians live. Festivals abound across the country “…from the Redwood forests to the Gulf Stream waters….” (apologies to Woody Guthrie) and the Amana Colonies in Iowa are known for their dandelion wines. Google Dandelion Festivals to find one near you. One coming up for St. Patrick’s Day is Dandelion Days in California.
Dandelions are delicious but there’s a trick to enjoying them. The best ones are picked in very early spring when the leaves are brand new. Those poking out from under leaves are semi blanched, lack bitterness, and are delicious and packed with vitamins. As soon as dandelion leaves are full size they are too bitter to eat without special processing. Young blanched leaves can be eaten raw in salad or steamed.
Before eating any wild plant for the first time make sure you correctly identify it, using at least two sources for identification……….an expert forager and a wild food book, or a wild food book and a credible website, for example. Our all-time favorite source for wild food information is Euell Gibbons’ classic book STALKING THE WILD ASPARAGUS. If you spot one at a used book sale snap it up as quickly as you do fresh nettles. Some helpful websites include Eat the Weeds , Eat the Weeds You Tube Videos, and Food52. Episode 134 of Eat the Weeds features neighborhood foraging. At about six minutes, Green Deane, the host, shows and talks about dandelions.