Rose Hip Gathering

Rose Hip Gathering

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe bright, red fruit of the wild rose adorns its bare-thorned stems through the frost and snow of winter, often in the company of snowberry and red osier dogwood creating a bright visual bouquet on winter walks. These fruits are called hips and they hold the seeds of the wild rose which are surrounded by the thick fleshy skin which are known to be particularly high in Vitamin C, ounce for ounce about 20 times higher than oranges.


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERARose hips have been used by cultures around the world as snack foods, herbal teas, syrups, jellies and cordials. Herbal teas are made by simply infusing dried rose hips in hot water for a few minutes adding a lovely flavor to herbal tea blends, or can be used alone with honey. We have been including them in our bitters, and herbal liqueurs.


Rose hips are so high in Vitamin C, that in England during World War II it was considered a civic duty to make rose hip syrup made with hips from the hedgerows cooked with sugar to provide much needed replacement for the unavailable citrus. Studies have shown that while there is some loss of vitamins during cooking it is fairly minimal, and once preserved remains stable. Better yet is to use an alcohol extract to capture and preserve these beneficial vitamins. We use rosehips in many of our foraged cocktails ingredients such as our Northwest Bitters.

ronu-0512-croppedWhat are rose hips? At the base of each rose flower is a round seedpod which ripens through the late summer into a bright red fruit of fall and winter, known around the world for its healthful benefits. It is famous for its high Vitamin C content, and also contain vitamins A, B1, B2, B3, and K, and studies have shown it to be anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory.


Harvesting and Processing Rose Hips

ropi-frostsmallRose hips can be harvested anytime after they have turned red, and as long as they remain red and firm enough to handle, usually through the winter months, though they lose nutritional value as the season progresses. Freezing helps to soften the cells and make them easier to break down for syrups, and makes them more flavorful, though they are still useful and flavorful prior to freezing. If you’d like the benefits of frozen hips earlier in the season you can simply put them in the freezer for a day.

Throughout our region in the Pacific Northwest you can find patches of wild roses in hedgerows, along trails, and perhaps in your own backyard. You can use the hip from any rose, including the ones in your yard as long as you are sure that systemic fungicides and pesticides have not been used. Harvest the hips either with or without the stems, taking care not to cause harm to the branches, and making sure to leave plenty for the birds and wildlife who rely on the winter forage, who help to spread the seed as well.

rose-hipsShould you remove the seeds or not? On this point opinions and techniques part ways. The seeds themselves contain cyanide, as do apples and many other fruit seeds. More problematic though, the seeds inside the rose hip are protected in fiberglass-like fuzz which we definitely don’t want to ingest, it is hard on our digestive tract. So, the short answer is that if you are using rose hips in alcohol extracts and jellies you can probably leave the seeds in, as long as you are straining the whole mass out. However, if I am using rosehips for a puree-like jam or for tea I definitely take the time to cut them in half and scrape out the seeds with a tiny spoon (not my fingernail as I’ve learned the hard way, the glassy hairs get under my fingernail and persist for days). If you aren’t sure of your potential use, I would take the seeds and their hairy fiber out, while fresh, and then dry the hips, it is much harder to do this after the hips are dry.

tea-lesson-rose-hipsRose hips are easily dried in the house at normal room temperature in single layers on paper or in baskets with good airflow, or dried in a dehydrator with an eye on the heat, keep it low to maintain the nutritional value. Once dried they can be stored in tightly sealed glass jars for years. Note: I always keep my recently dried and stored herbs and food in sight until I’m sure they were thoroughly dried, checking my jars for moisture.

A simple rosehip cordial can be made with a cup of rosehips, brandy and sugar. A simple recipe here: . If you attend any of our Foraged Cocktail classes you will learn how you might use them in bitters, syrups, amoras and more.

Studies referred to in this article:
Vitamin C in rose hips after cooking:
Study showing anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits of rose hips:


Amazing Nuts

Amazing Nuts

By Heidi Bohan

Originally published in ‘Feeding the People, Feeding the Spirit- Revitalizing Northwest Coastal Indian Food Culture’ Segrest and Krohn, December 2010


Raccoon just could not stop eating the winter store of delicious hazelnuts his grandmother had carefully set aside in a pit near the plankhouse, and he used every trick he knew to steal those nuts. When Grandma finally caught him, she gave him the black stripes he wears to this day by beating him with a fire-charred stick.

Fortunately, today it is much easier to get that stash of nuts to add to your traditional foods diet. Our native hazelnuts and acorns, along with locally grown walnuts, filberts (commercially grown hazelnuts) and sweet chestnuts are widely available. Further away we get almonds grown in California, sunflower seeds from the prairies, pine nuts from the southwest or Europe, and pecans native to the southeast.

In the past native hazelnuts were harvested in the fall and stored in dry pits to eat as snacks. Acorns were harvested from the native oak and also buried in pits outdoors to allow the rain to leach out the bitter tannins until they were sweet and could be used in soups and stews. Though they did not make up a major part of the diet here, they were nonetheless an important regular addition to the diet common throughout much of the northwest. Eating small amounts of nuts daily should continue to be part of a traditional food diet.

Nuts are delicious, high in protein and full of Omega 3, the good fat which is also found in salmon. For this reason and others, numerous studies have shown that nuts are surprisingly important for preventative health.

  • Studies have conclusively shown that people who eat just a few nuts a day have 60% fewer heart attacks than those who eat nuts less than once per month. The beneficial effect of nut consumption to reduce heart attacks was found for men, women, vegetarians, meat-eaters, fatter people, thinner people, the old, the young and those who did a lot or a little exercise.

Further, eating just a few nuts a day

  • Reduces the risks of having a stroke
  • Helps reduce heart disease
  • Helps prevent Type 2 Diabetes
  • Reduces chances of developing dementia, advanced macular degeneration and gallstones
  • Calculations suggest that daily nut eaters gain an extra five to six years of life free of coronary disease, and that regular nut eating appears to increase longevity by about 2 years.

To gain these health benefits it is best that nuts be raw, and not roasted because high heat reduces many of the health benefits. Since nuts are very high in calories it is also important to use nuts to replace other high-calorie foods rather than increase your calorie intake. So instead of eating high-calorie, processed foods such as potato chips for a snack, consider a handful of nuts or some nut butter on whole grain toast, crackers or apple slices.

Traditionally the acorn from Quercus garryana, known today as Oregon White Oak or Garry Oak, was used in soups after being leached of tannins in pits. Sweet chestnuts, which are not native but grow well here in the Northwest, can be used in the same way and add a nice texture and flavor to soups such as butternut squash or mushroom soup. Both of these nuts can be made into flour by drying and grinding them to be used in place of a portion of flour (but not all) for baked goods such as muffins and pancakes.

If you can ward off squirrels and jays, our native hazelnut, Corylus cornuta, is a wonderful addition to the diet. Markets carry ‘filberts’ which are the same nut but a different variety from Europe and are grown here in the northwest, one of the only areas in the world to grow them commercially. Walnuts come in two forms; the very hard-shelled American native ‘black walnut’ and the more commonly known and softer shelled ‘English’ or ‘Persian’ walnut. There are many walnut trees growing in our neighborhoods, and it is possible to get up to 125 pounds from a single tree. Both hazelnuts and walnuts should be ‘cured’ by drying in a warm place right after harvest, then stored in a cool dry room.

Easy ways to incorporate raw nuts in the diet include adding walnuts or hazelnuts to morning oatmeal and eating raw nut butter with slices of apples or celery sticks. You can make your own nut butters using a food processor or a mortar and pestle. Nuts can be used in stuffing, croquettes and patties, cookies, salads, in pesto (nuts ground with herbs and oil into a paste) and seasoned and lightly roasted for snacks. Nuts can be ground into flour and used in pastries. Nut oils such as hazelnut oil and walnut oil can be used in salad dressings or for light cooking.

Nuts are considered an important part of sustainable agriculture because they require minimal care and provide an important source of fat and protein not provided in most vegetables crops. Many cultures have relied on nuts as a mainstay for good reason, and it is time to bring nuts back into focus for healthy, traditional food meals.

St. Patrick’s Day


Folk museum St Patricks crossesweb Folk museum label st Patricks crosses 2 web

St Patrick’s Day is one of six holidays in Ireland which commemorate a person or event when banks, schools, stores and transportation are closed or reduced- Christmas, St. Stephen’s Day (December 26th), Easter Monday, May Day (nearest Monday to May 1) and Halloween (the nearest Monday to October 31st. St Patrick’s Day, Christmas and St. Stephens are the only holidays which occur on the same date every year, regardless of the day of the week.

Folk museum label St patricks day2 web

St. Patrick’s Day is one of the most celebrated holidays in Ireland, which I confirmed during my recent visit there last October. From a label from the National Museum of Ireland ‘ Then as now, St. Patrick’s Day, March 17th was one of the central events of the Irish year. The flag of Ireland was proudly carried by Irish people in parades across Ireland and North America in celebration of the country’s patron saint. The family enjoyed a meal and attended mass wearing Folk museum label St Patricks day 3webthe shamrock- often the men would then go to the pub to drink the saint’s health.’

It was tradition in Ireland to end St. Patrick’s Day with the ‘Drowning of the Shamrock’ by placing the shamrocks worn throughout the day in a glass of whiskey before drinking it.  To gain better insights about the importance of St. Patrick to Ireland and the mythology around this I highly recommend reading ‘I am of Irelaunde- A Novel of Patrick and Osian’ by Julienne Osborne-McKnight

While here in America turning beer, pools and rivers green is going a bit overboard (as we tend to do), most of the traditions us more common folk practice on St. Patrick’s Day are traditional in Ireland too. So yes, ‘Wear the Green’ and a shamrock too (three leaf clovers are fine), and make that corned beef and cabbage without shame (see below). I replace potato with parsnip to be more historically accurate and make a delicious parsnip and kale colcannon which I delight in. And a Guinness is a great way to drink it all down, finished off with some Apple cake and drop of Irish whiskey. Yes.

From ‘Irelands Generous Nature’ an amazing ethnobotany of Ireland by Peter Wyse Jackson-‘The shamrock is worn widely in Ireland on St. Patrick’s day, 17 March. The leaf is said to symbolize a story told of St. Patrick’s use of the three-leaved shamrock to explain the Holy Trinity (God the Father, Son and Holy Ghost). [Though recent scholars question that St. Patrick’s really said this, it has been part of folklore in Ireland for many centuries]. Shamrocks were said to be lucky and so have been used as a badge for sports teams, state organizations and troops serving abroad from Ireland. The national airliner Aer Lingus, uses a shamrock as its logo. [O]ne can find Irish people who believe that shamrock will not grow in any country other than Ireland, and others cannot agree what plant species should be regarded as the one true shamrock. Today, Trifolium dubium is generally the species that is grown and worn on St. Patrick’s Day. This is the plant species put on display at the National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin each year, representing the ‘real’ shamrock.’ From ‘Irelands Generous Nature’– Jackson:

Lough na fooey view xc w rams

‘Green is the colour most often associated with Ireland. The green pigments found in most plants (chlorophyll) is predominant in the Irish landscape and allusions to it crop up in so many aspects of Irish culture and folklore. Traditional songs such as ‘The Forty Shades of Green’, ‘The Green Glens of Antrim’, “The Green Hills of Clare’, [etc] all refer to Ireland’s verdant green colour of fields, hedgerows, woods and mountainsides. There has also been a strong connection between the colour green and Irelands nationalist movements over the centuries. The tricolor flag of Ireland of green, white and orange was introduced by Thomas Francis Meagher in 1848. The colour green represents the Irish people, the orange the English supporters of King William of Orange, and the white, Peace.’

‘One of the best known songs referring to the symbolism of green is ‘The Wearing of the Green’ which refes back to the rebellion of 1798. One version of the lyrics:

O Paddy dear, and did ye hear the news that’s goin’ round?
The shamrock is by law forbid to grow on Irish ground!
No more Saint Patrick’s Day we’ll keep, his colour can’t be seen
For there’s a cruel law ag’in the Wearin’ o’ the Green.’

I met with Nappy Tandy, and he took me by the hand
And he said, ‘how’s poor old Ireland, and how does she stand?’
‘She’s the most distressful country that ever yet was seen
For they’re hanging men and women there for the Wearin’ o’ the Green.’

‘So if the colour we must wear be England’s cruel red
Let it remind us of the blood that Irishmen have shed
And pull the shamrock from your hat, and throw it on the sod
But never fear, ‘twill take root there, though underfoot ‘tis trod.

When laws can stop the blades of grass from growin’ as they grow
And when the leaves in summer-time their colour dare not show
Then I will change the colour too I wear in my caubeen
But till that day, please God, I’ll stick to the Wearin’ of’ the Green.’

From ‘Irelands Generous Nature’– Jackson

 On Corned Beef and Cabbage

The Irish rarely ate their cattle in their early history, eating mostly grains until the introduction of the potato, along with pork and milk products.  They held a reverence for the animals and wanted them for their milk rather than their meat. When the English outlawed the importation of live Irish cattle in 1667, traditional Irish corned beef became an important commodity. Corned beef is actually salted beef, a form of preservation. Spiced beef is a holiday food, taking corned beef and brining it with spices, taking the form of what we call ‘corned beef’ today.

From ‘Irish Traditional Cooking’ by Darina Allen- ‘Corned beef has a long history in the Irish diet. It is listed as a ‘delicious prodigious viand’ in the 11th century text Aisling Meic Con Glinne: ‘Many wonderful provisions, Pieces of every palatable food full without fault, perpetual joints of corned beef’. ‘Corned beef has been long associated with Cork City. Between the 1680’s and 1825 beef-corning was the city’s most important industry.’ On the Corned Beef & Cabbage recipe: ‘although this dish is eaten less frequently nowadays in Ireland…. Originally it was a traditional Easter Sunday dinner… after the long Lenten fast with fresh green cabbage and floury potatoes.’

Now it is a traditional food on St. Stephen’s day. In Ireland, corned beef was considered a luxury and it is because of this that it became popular to the  Irish immigrants in America where it was no longer expensive with the abundance of beef in America and probably because it reminded them of home. As a feast food it is not a stretch to consider it a good choice for St. Patrick’s day meals.


In spite of the cynicism towards St. Patrick’s Day traditions in American, I say Go ahead!enjoy the traditions of St. Patrick’s Day as a way to honor the Irish in so many of us!






Tumplines & Straps

historic paintingOver the last few years my attention has turned again and again to the colorful straps which often accompany the beautiful baskets of the Pacific Northwest. These straps are called tumplines and are used to carry baskets in a variety of ways while harvesting and traveling, most notably across the forefront of the head or around the shoulders when carrying a load on the back, relieving strain on the shoulders and aligning the weight with the spine. They are still in use today by indigenous people during berrypicking and root harvests, and by many backpackers and canoers who use commercially available straps to help alleviate the full load of a pack while hiking rough grounds and portaging.


historic photoThe traditional tumplines were noted in early journals and painted by early artists during explorations in North and South America and were quickly adopted into use by Europeans. They are a testament to the weaving culture of the region from which they come, using strong fibers of each land; sometimes just strips of strong bark, others made using plant fiber twisted into the warps, then twined and woven with dyed wool or other cordage to create colorful patterns in a variety of designs.

Polly olson with berry basket and tumplineA few years ago I travelled with a tribal community  into traditional lands in the closed Cedar River Watershed outside of Seattle to harvest huckleberries at Yakima Pass, a historic crossing place between Snoqualmie and Yakama tribes. Polly Olson from the Yakama Nation joined us, and brought out her grandmothers berry basket and tumpline. She showed us the several ways that tumplines are used and I captured this image of her with the tumpline set up to harvest huckleberries. I was so intrigued by the many ways in which a tumpline could be used, not just to carry a load, but also to secure a berry basket in place while harvesting in brushy, hilly terrain, the typical habitat for mountain huckleberries.

Mullen coil basket 1The Snoqualmie Tribe was invited to visit the Burke Museum, where we were shown and handled objects in the collection known to be made by Snoqualmie people. One of those was a beautiful tumpline which was a thrill to see. My friend, John Mullen, a Snoqualmie tribal member invited me to look at baskets in his family collection, some woven by his mother (shown here). Attached to one of these baskets was another beautiful example of a tumpline, complementing one of the finest baskets I’ve ever seen.

Tumplines from Fidalgo and BCThese experiences focused my interest and I’ve been working towards learning the techniques used to make these tumplines as works of art. There is surprisingly little information available about this and I don’t personally know of anyone creating these in the traditional manner of this area. I recently was allowed to study some tumplines at the Karshner Museum in Puyallup, and just this week I was able to revisit the Burke to study baskets and was so pleased to further study the tumplines from Puget Sound area to gain further knowledge about their weaving techniques.

Burke tumplineTumplines are woven using long warp strands used to form the foundation of the strap. These warps are typically made using very strong two-ply cordage made from plant fiber.  The area in the middle of the strap, which crosses the forehead and/or shoulders, is woven with a soft weaving, usually wool, to cushion the skin, usually ranging from 1″- 2” wide, by 12”- 28” long which tapers to a braided strap, about ¾” wide which then makes up the greater length of the strap. The overall length varies, from 6′ long to 12′ or so (3′-6′ on each side from the center). The preferred cordage used in the warp for this region appears to be made primarily from dogbane hemp and stinging nettle, sometimes maple bark, cedar and certainly other plants. The weavers that are used to form the cushioning and decorative area are predominantly dyed wool, perhaps left over from other weaving projects as it does not much to go a long way, or by using the same materials as the warp.

Diagonal plaited tumpline

Cedar bark might also be used to make a tumpline, the model above uses a diagonal weave and I’ve seen others with a checkerboard weave incorporating beargrass for ornamentation.  I created the one shown to experiment with the diagonal weave tapering to cordage made from cedar bark, though I haven’t actively used it in harvest yet.

Weaving activity loomYears ago I created a ‘Northwest Coast Weaving Activity’ for school classes, using a simple loom which replicates, at least conceptually, the ‘two-bar loom’ used by the Coast Salish which is an ingenious design allowing rotation of the weaving to remain in the center for ease of working. My school activity creates a little weaving very similar to a tumpline as it turns out, though on a much smaller scale. I also love to incorporate making natural dyes to create your own colorful wool yarn using native plants which can be used in this activity. I tumpline 5expanded on this concept with larger versions of this loom for my adult ethnobotany programs in an effort to reconstruct the techniques for creating tumplines. I have a delightful picture of my Yakama friend’s mom working on her woven strap as they are driving, which she started in my Fibers class last summer, which could not have pleased me more. Many others have created simple straps as we have teased out the techniques for making these beautiful objects which they’ve used as headbands, hat bands, basket straps and more.

Tumpline BC closeupI have learned that most of the Northwest coast tumplines designs are woven using a twined technique in weaving the pattern, occasionally a simple weft and warp weave going over and under one or two warps. The woven portion ends with a gradually or abrupt transition to a simple braid. The twined technique on warps is similar to the Ravenstail and Chilkat weaving of the northern tribes, as well as the twined basketry of the Sahaptin/ Columbia River area, using cordage or wool twined on cordage. Incredibly strong, this type of weaving creates opportunity for many patterns. I still am not sure what the traditional loom was, perhaps it was done on the large two-bar Tumpline detail ending Fidalgo and BCloom, or perhaps there was another method similar to the way ‘crios’ straps are made in Ireland (below).





Cherokee village weaver tumplineWoven straps in other regions are often created using ‘finger weaving’ which is a very different technique, much documented, using a diagonal weave incorporating the warps as the weavers. I had the chance to watch weavers from the Eastern Band Cherokee creating their beautiful straps used for clothing, baskets and carrying loads using this technique.


Crios weavingIn my research prior to my recent trip to Ireland I discovered the straps of Ireland, called Crios, a technique also nearly lost but now being preserved by a few weavers, and being used for items such as guitar straps, for ‘handfasting’ a symbol of marriage and belts for clothing, their traditional use. These are woven using a traditional warp and weft weave traditionally using a very basic loom which incorporated the feet and belt in holding a loom taut. I hope someday to have one custom made using colors symbolic to my recent trip to Ireland, and perhaps learn the skill myself to share with my Celtic friends.

It has been fun experimenting with weaving tumplines with ethnobotany students, incorporating natural dyes, creating looms, and learning weaving techniques. I recently completed a three day workshop with Alderleaf Wilderness School during which times students were able to finish some beautiful new tumplines. I couldn’t be more pleased to help bring this art form back into common use.

Tumplines complete2

I will add to this post as time goes by and I discover new things!

Photos from Ireland

I’ve been home now for a bit over a two months, but still dream of Ireland where I spent three weeks in October. I have yet to create the blogs I still have planned to share about some of my experiences, but thought I could at least post some of my photo albums from the trip. These link to my public Facebook photo albums, which does not require a person to have a Facebook account.

Glendalough Monastary 1

My first days in Ireland were in the Wicklow Mountains and the Glendalough Monastic site just an hour or so drive south of Dublin. My very first activity in Ireland,(after remembering how to drive to the left)  was an unplanned walk in the Glendalough Woodlands and I was instantly transformed by this magical place. Photo album

Beaufort cottage 1 x

I then traveled to Beaufort in the Killarney area to stay a week near the largest intact Oldwoods in Ireland. It was amazing, I stayed in the cutest cottage surrounded by flowers, and walked trails and hedgerows alone harvesting fruits and exploring  ancient mossy yew groves and oak woodlands. Ethnobotanist, Kat Anderson, joined me there and we spent time exploring this magic land together with an eye on the plants and culture, as well as another friend Kat Koch who is living there, who showed me her favorite places. photo album

Basketry studio

After a week in Killarney (I could have stayed years) I traveled on to the reason I planned this trip to Ireland, a weeklong stay in Connemara working with famed basketmaker Joe Hogan. I stayed in a stone cottage with other basketmakers who came in from England, and had my dreams come true. I feel truly blessed by this time. I ended my last few days staying in an amazing manor house near one of the richest areas for megalithic sites, and a final day to go visit the must-see again-and-again National Museum of Ireland. photo album

Foray Along the Tolt

January 2, 2016

tolt confluence Winter scene2

These holi-days spanning Solstice and the New Year have been blessed by the touch of ice in the mornings, hoar frost accenting the lines of boughs and leaf, the solstice sun rising to illuminate the promise of our lengthening days. Bird friends ornament boughs with flashes of blue and red, tiny ones flutter near windows and flit along paths, twittering flocks pass overhead in the garden canopy.

A walk along the river trails, pools of water, recently flooding this valley, now held quiet in frozen slabs. The color red is a startling contrast against the icy white, browns and green- translucent ruby-red rose hips, the scarlet stems of red-twig dogwood, red tinged thickets of Nootka rose and vine maple. In the distance hues of orange and yellow stand in company with the suite of reds, sign of willows bare of leaves, buds already filling to burst into catkins announcing spring.

Winter harvests now of these rose hips, willow and dogwood osiers, sticky aromatic cottonwood buds, resinous roots, rhizomes and barks for those with the knowledge to create healing foods and medicines or to weave into fine containers.

New Apprenticeship- Ethnobotany & Traditional Plant Uses
Spring-Summer 2016

And for those of us who take these deep winter forays the signs of spring are already here, the swelling buds, new shoots from thick bulbs beginning to push through the leaf litter. As the wheel turns to the new year I am excited to unfold a new program starting in late winter, an ‘Ethnobotany-Traditional Plant Uses’ program, running February through September; two learning days per month, along with excursions and impromptu gatherings. See this site for more info, and let me know if you are interested, I am still designing the program and welcome input.

This is the time of the north, and I honor each season- though I love the warmth of summer, I feel a comfort in the starkness of winter mists rolling up the river, bare stems against the early darkening skyline, the stark intensity of a winter full moon and glittering constellations, the returning to homes filled with warmth and light to shake off the cold. I relish the traditions of this time of year, the first footings, all of the symbols of the sun calling back the light, the honoring of celestial events that have taken place unbroken for millennium, the annual death and renewal reminding of us of our own mortality and time to remember those who have passed before us. I light a candle to honor those who have passed and for the hopes of the coming year.

Christmas full moon from window

I hope to cross paths with you as the circle turns in 2016.

The Tolt River joins the Snoqualmie River near my home in Carnation, Washington. Its name is a trace of the first people’s name for this river, Toltxʷ representing an important village and fish trap located here for millennium, and it remains a critical habitat for salmon, eagle and others. A 9000 year old trail traveled upriver to another village and to what is now the Tolt Reservoir which provides a good portion of the water for Seattle.


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.

URDI patch at skedans
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.  Here’s another link to a video just released of me making a traditional salmon soup using nettles and other native plant ingredients.