When the Pacific chorus frog begins its song in February, the new shoots of nettle have begun to emerge at the base of the dried stalks of last years growth. Tinged with purple, and fully armed with tiny needles filled with formic acid, they exude nourishment for those with the wherewithal to harvest them. Native elders of this area recall large pots of nettle soup made in early spring, and eaten until gone, a promising tonic for health in the coming year.
This plant embodies the philosophy of using the whole plant for a wide range of purposes. The new shoots for food, mature leaves and flowers for dyes, medicinal teas and infusions, seeds and roots for medicinal preparations; fibrous stalks for cordage, netting, clothing, even paper.
This plant was so important to native people in the northwest that large patches of it were nurtured near the winter village, much like patches of stinging nettle also grown near the blackhouses in Scotland, where it was prized to ease the hunger and provide fresh nourishment badly needed in late winter. Here in the Northwest we have the species Urtica dioicous var. dioicus; similar varieties are widespread throughout the temperate world. Romans were known to carry seed with them to ensure its occurrence in their new lands for its importance as a food source.
A large patch of nettle near an old village site on Haida Gwaii (grass in the foreground, scale shown by our guide).
For people who have never tried to eat stinging nettle it is a big step to take that first bite, almost a rite of passage for those who have committed to bringing wild plants into their foodways. Usually there is surprise or doubt when first suggested, or in hushed tones, “I ate nettles once”. Yet nettle is a food that grows abundantly in our back woods offering itself freely, though guarded by tiny stingers, to those who understand its value.
A comparison of nettle to its counterparts for nutritional value is stunning. With many times the vitamins, minerals and protein of kale, spinach and chard, and yet it grows with virtually no effort on our part. I had that ephiphany one day as I conducted my twice daily slug patrol in my garden, and watched my spring greens struggle to overcome the challenges of early spring, under cloches and netting, and yet behind me, up in the hills these luscious spring greens were producing by the acre without the hand of man, yet mostly scorned. And harvesting done well doesn’t kill them, they continue to grow through the season and provide habitat, finally ending as stalks ideal for fiber and cordage. They grow in colonies with underground rhizomes so they return year after year. If we let them.
I use nettles in the same way I would use any cooked greens, and I look for spinach recipes to create new ways to incorporate nettle. Nettle cooked and chopped fine can be added to ricotta cheese in place of spinach as an ingredient in delicious lasagna. Chopped and ground with garlic in a mortar and pestle it makes an amazing, healthful pesto on bruschetta or tossed with your favorite pasta. I use them throughout the year in soups, especially my vegetable miso soup I love to make for lunch combining traditional roots and bulbs, greens including nettle, seaweed, ginger, garlic and other spices with miso.
But one of my absolute favorite spring dishes is a lamb, sweet potato and nettle stew which I adapted from Red-Cooked Lamb with Sweet Potatoes from ‘Spoonful of Ginger’, which starts with a quick sauté of lots of garlic, scallions, fresh ginger, cinnamon stick and chile paste in oil, to which 5 cups of soy and sake flavored chicken broth are added along with a couple lbs of cubed raw lamb, which are cooked until tender, then cubed sweet potato are added, then finally nettle leaves and tips. Full flavored and delicious I sometimes serve it on rice, or just as is, and I try to freeze some up for later in the year.
I generally harvest using scissors and paper bag, just using the scissors to cut and place the sprouts into the bag (see video below). I never harvest nettle past knee high if I am going to eat the leaves (it’s okay for tea). I now use tongs at home to handle each shoot, and use scissors to cut off the tender bundle of new leaves at the tip, and cut off the larger side leaves, then I usually discard the thicker stem as they can remain tough, great in the compost, adding nutrients to the pile. Once cooked or dried the stingers lose their efficacy. I usually blanch and freeze a good supply to use, and try to dry a few bags as well to add to soups and stews.
See the following U-tube video where I talk about how to harvest nettle. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D9ZdKdhKfcw Here’s another link to a video just released of me making a traditional salmon soup using nettles and other native plant ingredients. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TfFbDcaFcTo