The Mighty Stinging Nettle
Stinging Nettles (Urtica dioica) are quite a cheeky plant and one that everyone remembers!
They're easy to recognise; delicious, nutritious, abundant and for me one of the most versatile wild foods.
You can use Nettles to make great soups; They also go very well with scrambled eggs. Nettle Curry, Nettle Samosas, Nettle falafels: in fact anywhere you'd use leafy greens such as spinach. You can make Nettle tea, dry them and use as a herb, Nettle beer, Nettle vinegars, Nettle salts and hundreds of other recipes and uses.
They have very strong fibres and can be used to make cordage, having similar properties to hemp.
Chuck a load in a bucket of water, leave them for a few weeks and you have a stinky, but highly nutritious fertiliser for your garden plants.
The sting of nettles is caused by tiny needle like structures that cover the stem and leaves, these are easily destroyed by drying, crushing or heating.
Just fry them, blanch them, wilt over flames.
As you might tell I have a soft spot for Nettles. I Chose the Nettle leaf for the logo of my business. They were one of the first plants I began foraging and were a gateway plant into the fascinating world of wild foods. I love the shape and structure of the leaf. I picked some, dried them out and took a picture for a true foraged logo,
When harvesting wild plants for food we always need to be 100% positive of the identification. This involves using several quality Plant ID books and triple checking everything until we're completely familiar with the plant. Nettles are a great example of how instinctive plant identification becomes when we build a relationship (either positive or negative) with a plant. Fear makes us remember nettles as children.... love takes over when you realise how tasty and useful they are!
A huge amount of energy, resources and land goes into growing and distributing highly perishable leafy crops such as lettuces and spinach. These are often sprayed with all sorts of pesticides and fart smelling gasses before they are available to buy in disposable plastic bags. I have several allotments and grow lots of my own food. I've pretty much given up on growing most leafy vegetables. The fact is our hedgerows have far tastier and nutritious greens and salad leaves available that can be harvested for free and in a sustainable manner. This is the area for me where foraging shows most potential as a food source in the modern world.
The Main season for nettles is the spring and autumn.
Wear Gloves!!! You want to harvest the fresh, vibrant looking new growth, picking the first 3 or 4 sets of leaves at the tip. Plants put most of their energy into the growing points and these are the tastiest and most nutritious parts.
There's some debate about the edibility of nettle leaf once they've gone to flower/ seed in the summer. I know many people who do eat them but apparently, they can start to build up microscopic rods of calcium carbonate which can interfere with kidney function. Personally, I avoid them at this stage, they're always very scraggly looking by then and the flavour is nothing like the fresh growth.
A top tip if you want to harvest nettles but they've all gone to seed is to simply cut the plant back to the ground. In a few weeks there will be fresh, vibrant new growth to harvest.
As with all foraging, spread your picking out, just because nettles are abundant in a particular area does not mean you should pick all of them. Plants need leaves to eat sunlight and so overharvesting will damage the plant. Many other creatures rely on nettles as a food source and they are the exclusive larval food of several species of butterfly. Nettle harvesting, if done respectfully is a great example of how foraging can be beneficial for ecosystems. When harvesting the tops of nettles in this way and spreading out the harvest you are pruning the plant and encouraging more growth, more nettles and more food, everyones a winner.
Convenience is such an important factor with food.
In the spring I take the opportunity to pick a load, dry them and powder them to be used throughout the year. I can't always be bothered to go out for a walk before dinner. Having wild foods easily available at hand means I'm much more likely to use them. The powder works great in soups, stews, curries, teas, smoothies, mixed into bread, with baked beans, scrambled eggs. It adds a whole lot of flavour and nutrients and pretty much works with everything!
They're probably the easiest herb to dry. I remove the leaf from the main stem and chuck them into paper deli style bags and hang them up somewhere, shaking them about whenever I manage to remember. After a few weeks they should be nice and crisp. Use like this or powder in a blender or by hand. Let me know how you like to use nettles in the kitchen...
Like many other plants Nettles can take up heavy metals and other nasty stuff from the ground. They are particularly good at this. This is great if you're using plants to clean up a contaminated area (Phytoremediation), not so great if you're planning to eat them. Always research the areas your foraging from and look at historical land uses; particularly if you're eating foraged goods on a regular basis.