Why Do Stinging Nettle Sting?

A delightful swatch of color flitted by as we sat on our back deck on one of spring’s first warm sunny days.  It was a red admiral butterfly that landed on a post just a few feet from us. It appeared to be enjoying the weather as much as we were.   

We’ve since spotted many red admirals in the yard, probably because stinging nettles thrive on the north end of our property. It’s the favored plant for red admiral caterpillars, although they’ll also live on other types of nettles. That poses somewhat of a dilemma.

What is a Red Admiral Butterfly?

Red Admiral Butterfly

These colorful butterflies depend on early blooming plants like nettles.

Red Admirals are a common butterfly across much of the temperate globe. They’re found across Europe and Asia, North Africa, Hawaii, and much of North America, especially the eastern half of our continent. The larvae feed on stinging nettles, which may not be native. So, if red admirals need stinging nettles what did they eat before the plant was introduced to North America in the early days of European exploration? It’s not even certain that stinging nettles are exotic. They may have been here all along, or early butterflies may have fed on wood nettles.  

 

We appreciate both the insect and plant here at Winding Pathways. Red admirals add color and movement to the yard, while nettles make delicious eating. It’s the first wild green we harvest each early spring.

Can You Eat Nettles?

Stinging Nettles

Carefully pluck the top three leaves off.

Stinging nettles are ready to harvest early – about the time when chard, spinach, and lettuce are planted. When the nettles are just a few inches tall we pluck off the top three or four leaves. They are called stinging nettles because the plant has tiny hairlike stingers. Walk through a patch in summer wearing shorts and nettles cause instant pain. But it’s temporary and not dangerous. Another name for the plant is the “seven-minute itch.” The sting comes from histamines.

 

We gather young nettles without getting stung by carefully plucking just the top leaves between our thumb and forefinger and snapping them off. About 100 young nettle tops make two servings. We bring them into the kitchen, rinse them a couple of times, and steam them for just a minute or two. The sting disappears and resulting greens are delicious. Plus they pack a nutritious array of vitamins and are high in protein.

Nettle season is short. By the time the plants are eight or ten inches tall, the new leaves are getting tough. But by then we’re harvesting chard and spinach from the garden.  

We’re happy to share our yard with both red admirals and nettles. Anyone with a partly shady yard with damp soil might want to start a nettle patch. Wear a pair of gloves and dig up a few and plant them in the yard. They aren’t fussy and will provide excellent table fare and a higher likelihood that the yard will be home to the colorful butterfly.

Dandelions Never Roar!

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

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.

DANDELIONS

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.

A CAUTION

 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. 

Delicious, Nutritious Stinging Nettles!

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.