Stinging nettles—yowch! See those glassy hairs on the stems? They break off if you touch them, pushing histamine, serotonin, acetylcholine, and several types of acids into your skin, and giving you—“nettles.” At first it stings, then you might get welts where they went in, and then they begin to itch, an insistence that may come and go, but especially come back in the middle of the night. A day or so later, the experience is just a memory.
The plants look like mints, with their opposite leaves, so sometimes you grab them to squeeze and sniff—then scream. They are part of the woodland foliage in the prettiest places—moist spots, near creeks, where you may be walking in shorts.
You, my friend, get caught. You get nettled. Your first thought might be, “A pox on you! Get them off this earth. Herbicide! A bulldozer with a sharp blade! Kill! Kill!”
But you know they are native, and that your thoughts are unworthy: plenty of “things” surely depend on them. And a childhood memory of fairy tales rasps in your head, so you check Wikipedia next time you have internet. You read about the damsel who had to make shirts from nettles so her brothers, who had been turned to swans, could become her human brothers again. Another young damsel had to make a fine nettle shirt for some lord.
So you follow links and learn that before flax came to northern Europe, nettles were the fiber that people—probably many of your ancestors— had to use for much of their cloth. It was hard work, though, because the fibers in nettles are attached firmly to the wood, and also because at every node, there’s a chunk of wood someone has to pull off.
You’ve heard me rave—or rage?—about nettles, so you call to ask about my experiences. I tell you how I went down that same line of reasoning you did, and decided to let my fingers learn what my ancestors may have experienced. I made enough yarn to make a small wall hanging.
I tell you all about it. You hear the pride in my voice and think I’m a little dingy.
I say I harvested some stems in July when they were six or more feet tall. Then I “retted” them, which is sort of like “rot,” meaning I let fungus and bacteria work on them in the dew on the hillside, except for one batch that I submerged in the creek for a week. After they dried, I “shucked” the stems, which means cracked the twig, trying to keep the thin peel of bark intact while throwing away the insides. I shucked for hours and days and weeks and more. So did my husband and a few visitors who came at that time. Then I carded the papery shreds while pulling out more chunks of wood and pith that we missed. It didn’t card well, not like wool or flax. It had a tendency to turn into a fibrous cigar rather than a fluffy rolag (the term used for the bundle of carded wool). Then I spun it with a drop spindle and got my yarn, which was more like coarse twine.
I would have told you that the damsels in the folk tales had better technique than I did. No one would wear a shirt made this stuff. A welcome mat, maybe!
You hang up and keep reading. You learn that the coastal Native Americans used nettles for twine for fishing nets. And that it has been used medicinally for a thousand years. Meh, you think. That was a long time ago.
But then you read that nettles is super-nutritious—high in vitamins A and C, protein, and a slew of minerals, and it’s a “new gourmet ingredient,” so you get interested. So you call me again and ask if I’ve ever eaten nettles, and I tell you, “Absolutely! They’re—well, really green!”
And here is the rest of what I tell you.
In the spring, I put fresh leaves in lasagna instead of spinach. Why buy spinach (that has to be produced, transported, sold, purchased) when I already have so many nettles? I don’t think anyone has ever commented until I tell them. “Tastes like lasagna,” they say. “With green stuff.”
I’ve also steamed it, like spinach, and it tastes—green. Until I add butter, and then it tastes like something green with butter. Maybe asparagus, but with a raspier texture. Not a texture I enjoy, but then maybe I harvested it too late, when it is said to get that way.
Soup: for me, that’s the real calling. I made nettle soup recently. It was really—green. And good. This is what I do.
I collected nettles first. I rubber-band a plastic bag on my left hand and hold clippers in my naked right hand. I look for the top 2-6 inches of a stem. It will have four or six leaves plus the bud. I grab the shoot with my left hand, clip it with the right, then drop it into a waiting bucket. In my part of the Oregon Coast Range, the tips are large enough to harvest starting around February and are tender through April. The lower leaves are always the older ones. They are more fibrous and raspy than the tips and have had a longer time to accumulate chew-marks and little insects, so I leave them. By the way, the plants are perennial, with below-ground storage in rhizomes, so occasional harvesting should not decimate a population.
After I have “enough,” maybe sixty or eighty tips, I return to the kitchen. I then lift the shoots one at a time (my left hand in a plastic bag again, scissors in my right), and clip the leaves and terminal bud into a bowl, and discard the stem. I fill the bowl with water and swirl it with tongs that I then use to lift the contents onto cookie sheets or cooling racks. I spread them thin so that if there are any little flying insects, they can depart, and if there’s the occasional caterpillar, I will see it. This time, I saw no bugs whatsoever probably because it’s early in the season and the weather has been cold. [An alternative method is to clip the leaves off after boiling the nettles. That way, you don’t need to wear a plastic bag. But I like handling the beautiful greenish red folded hairy foliage with its paired leaves. So pretty!] Now I’m ready to make soup! Here’s the ingredient list I used. You’ll need a blender or an immersion mixer.
- Sixty or so nettle shoots
- 2 Tbsp olive oil
- 1 white onion
- ½ C celery tops and a few celery stalks (optional)
- 4 C of chicken stock
- 2 sausages, already cooked (optional)
While a large pot of salted water comes to a boil, I start a second pot, the soup pot. I pour in a little olive oil and a chopped onion, which I sauté. Then I add about a quarter-cup of uncooked white rice and whatever else I want to add, plus a quart of stock. This time, I used an onion we’d already baked in the woodstove; it gave a caramelly flavor. I also added two celery stocks and a half-cup of celery tops. For stock, I used a commercial chicken stock. I’ve used veggie stocks before, but prefer the chicken.
When the salted water boils, I toss in the nettle leaves and buds for two or three minutes, then drain them. [At this point, the glassy hairs are disrupted, and they are safe to handle.] I run the scissors through them a few times to break up fibers a bit. I add them to the soup pot and let it all simmer another fifteen minutes, then run it through the blender. After returning the soup to the soup pot, I add a couple sausages that are already cooked, sliced up. They give little prizes to the eater!
We don’t add any salt or seasoning because the stock and sausages give all we needed, but I think a little thyme and sage would be delicious in it. We ate ours with homemade bread with butter and honey.
So—should you end up in a place with nettles, make sure no one has applied herbicide there, then go for it! If you still think I’m a little dingy, I’m okay with that. I’m pleased you got out and tried a native, unimproved, naturally-occurring crop of the earth. And it was good, wasn’t it? Really—well, green!