Beating the Sting of the Stinging Nettle—Foraging

 

Young Stinging Nettle shoots showing hairs in Beech maple forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

On one fair spring day in May, my good friend and naturalist Merridy noted that the young shoots of Stinging Nettle were growing in great patches on the edge of the local Black Walnut and Locust forest. She was thinking of nettle tea or some such thing. I immediately thought of the time I prepared a creamed nettle vegetable that resembled how my mother used to make spinach. Medical News Today tells us that stinging nettle is a popular herbal remedy with many uses from reducing arthritis pain to treating seasonal allergies. Nettle appears to reduce inflammation, act as an antimicrobial, antioxidant, anti-edema, anti-ulcer, and pain-relieving agent. 

Of course, Stinging Nettle or Common Nettle (Urtica doica) gets its name from its sting, which is its ingenious way to repel predators. Aside from a stinging pain, inflammation will create a red itching rash for several hours—up to a day. When you brush against the Stinging Nettle, the fragile silica tips of its hollow hairs (trichomes) break off from the leaves and stems and act like needles, piercing the skin and releasing the venom. The venom consists of neurotransmitters (histamine, acetylcholine, and serotonin) and acids (formic acid, tartaric acid, and oxalic acid). The neurotransmitters are responsible for the primary pain and inflammation, while the acids enhance its duration.

Chemistry of Stinging Nettle (Image by Compound Chemistry)

Benefits of Nettle

As a forager, if you can avoid the stinging part (and you can easily do that by wearing gloves), you will be rewarded by several benefits. Nettle is rich in calcium, potassium, iron, manganese, and vitamins A and C. Nettles also support over forty species of insects, including butterflies. The tortoise-shell butterfly feeds exclusively on Nettle. In Yes! Magazine, Valerie Segrest tells us that, “Nettle concentrates vitamins and minerals from the soil in its body, resulting in easily absorbable nutrition, boasting superior levels of phyto-nutrients and life-sustaining vitamins and minerals. A cup of Nettle tea can offer 500 mg of calcium—double what’s in a cup of cow’s milk. Fortifying blood, building bones, increasing energy levels, improving circulation, and decreasing inflammation and oxidative stress in the body are a few of the health benefits.”

Young Stinging Nettle shoots in spring forest with hairs visible, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

“This is probably one of the most nutrient-dense plants you could ever hope to eat,” says Bosnian chef Jas on All-That’s-Jas cooking site. Jas cites ten reasons stinging nettle is beneficial:

  • The anti-inflammatory properties in stinging nettle can help relieve arthritis pain when applied topically. There is also a study that shows the nettle can fight other autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis.
  • It has diuretic properties, helping to provide relief from bloating and help treat urinary tract diseases.
  • Due to its antihistamine and anti-inflammatory properties, stinging nettle is a natural treatment for eczema.
  • It has antiviral, antibacterial, and antifungal properties, which can help fight off infections in the body.
  • Because of its range of beneficial nutrients and diuretic properties, stinging nettle is an effective detoxifier for the body. It gently cleanses the body of these toxins, and then can quickly flush them out.
  • It can help reduce nasal allergies and allergic reactions.
  • Stinging nettle leaves and stems contain chemicals that can help release insulin and control blood sugar.
  • The iron and Vitamin C in stinging nettle can help improve blood circulation in the body and increase blood cell production. This can speed up the healing process in the body.
  • It can help treat several respiratory conditions, such as asthma and hay fever.
  • Stinging nettle contains boron, which is linked to helping maintain strong bones. Consuming this edible plant may help to combat osteoporosis. 
Nettle with White Trillium and Trout Lily in Beech forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Where Nettle Grows & The Story of Nettle and Humans

Originally from Europe, Stinging Nettle (Urtica doica) has found its way throughout the world, including North Africa and North America. Segrest tells us that tenacious Nettle “can produce 10,000 seeds per plant annually while also propagating itself via rhizomes.”  In The Druid Plant Oracle, Philp and Stephanie Carr-Gomm tell us that “Nettle grew in Britain before the last two ice ages, but only began to flourish when humans began clearing the forests.” Although nettle grows best in fertile forested soil—I found it thriving in the beech-maple-oak forest close to my residence in the Kawarthas, Ontario—you can find young nettle growing on the edges of most ecosystems in early spring. Nettle flourishes in ecotones—where two ecosystems overlap—including forest fringes, the riparian area of rivers and ditches, cultivated farm fields, disturbed areas such as vacant lots, and fencerows.

Nettle has a long history of use as a source for traditional medicine, food, tea, and textile raw material in ancient societies. Neolithic tribes used nettle for string, fishing nets and cloth. Nettle stems contain a bast fibre traditionally used for the same purposes as linen and with fibres that are coarser than cotton. More recently, companies in Austria, Germany, and Italy have started to produce commercial nettle textiles.

Nettle growing amid Trout Lily and White Trillium in Beech forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Nettle As Archetype

“Nettles present a harsh exterior that conceals incredible goodness,” write Carr-Gomm. “It is easy to dismiss ‘prickly’ people as irritable, but this defence may conceal their true gifts…Nettles teach us that appearances can be deceptive and that first impressions can be wrong…Nettles teach us the secret of transmutation into something treasured and valuable.”

“Nettle teaches us how to thrive in a paradox,” writes Segrest. “In disturbed environments, Nettle grows strong, accumulating medicine from the soil and sun and demanding we pay attention to its presence, or pay the price of its burns.”

The Nettle card in Carr-Gomm “The Druid Plant Oracle”, illustration by Will Worthington

In story, Nettle represents the shapeshifter archetype.The shapeshifter adds dramatic tension to the story and provides the hero with a puzzle to solve. They can seem one thing and in fact be another. They bring doubt and suspense to the story and test the hero’s abilities to discern her path. Yoda in Star Wars is a bit of a shapeshifter, initially masking his ancient wisdom with a foolish childlike appearance when Luke first encounters him. Han Solo in Star Wars and Jack Colton in Romancing the Stone appear rogues but come through as heroes—when given the chance.Shapeshifters can, of course, seem innocent or innocuous and be dangerous. Rigel in Farscape and the Faun in Pan’s Labyrinth are good examples. 

Nettle lines the path in May through the Black Walnut-Locust Tree forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Foraging and Preparing the Nettle 

Merridy and I went picking that day. We noted that the area where we picked was clean and free of chemical sprays. Using scissors, Merridy carefully snipped the top leaves at an angle and placed them in her basket. We picked a basketful then rinsed the nettle in a colander in preparation for cooking later that day for supper. 

Picking the young nettle using gloves and scissors (photo by Nina Munteanu)

I started by boiling the nettle leaves and stems for a few minutes then transferring the nettle—with sting denatured—to a bowl. I kept the boiled liquid for later use (in the creamed sauce and for tea later).

Boiling the Nettle for several minutes denatures the sting (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Once the nettle leaves had cooled sufficiently, I chopped them up a bit then sautéed them in butter and garlic and flour. I added some of the nettle boil water and stirred then added milk, sour cream, and a pinch of nutmeg and—voila—I had a wonderful creamed nettle side vegetable to complement the baked trout, carrots and roasted potatoes I’d made for supper.

Creaming the nettle using butter with flour and garlic, milk and sour cream (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Getty Stewartshares that, “When you eat cooked stinging nettle straight up or as a side dish sautéed in garlic … it tastes like a dark leafy green – a little more intense than sautéed spinach but without any of the bitterness of kale or collard greens.” Both Merridy and I agree with Getty. The creamed nettle had a citrusy bite to it with a wonderful lemony aftertaste.

Creamed nettle alongside trout meal (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Recipe for Creamed Nettle

Ingredients:

  • 1 pound stinging nettle
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 garlic cloves sliced or minced
  • 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
  • ½ cup reserved nettle cooking liquid
  • ¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • ⅓ cup milk
  • 2 tablespoons sour cream
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Instructions:

  1. Clean and rinse one pound stinging nettles. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add nettles and cook until wilted, about 5-10 minutes. Drain in a colander.
  2. In a large cast iron or non-stick skillet, heat the two tablespoons butter and two garlic cloves over medium heat, until garlic is fragrant, about 30 seconds.
  3. Whisk in one tablespoon flour and cook until smooth and bubbly, about one minute.
  4. Add the nettle and ½ cup reserved cooking liquid. Simmer the nettle, stirring, until the liquid has evaporated, about 10 minutes.
  5. In a small bowl, whisk together ⅓cup milk and two tablespoons sour cream. Stir into the nettles. Add a pinch of nutmeg; season with salt and pepper to taste. Cook over medium heat until mixture thickens, about 3-5 minutes.
  6. Add a swirl of sour cream on top if you wish. Enjoy!

References:

Carr-Gomm, Philip and Stephanie. 2007. “The Druid Plant Oracle.” OH!,London. 144pp. 

Segrest, Valerie. 2021. “Get Past the Sting for a Healing Cup of Tea.” Yes! Magazine, Spring, 2021.

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioniin Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

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