Ahh, Stinging Nettle. Considered to be one of the most infamous plants of the forest by some folks, while deeply cherished by others. Young Nettles are getting taller by the day right now, and I can't help but be very excited about that!
If you happen to be unfamiliar with Stinging Nettle, let me explain why this plant gets such a bad rap. Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica) is known for its many tiny stinging hairs. Once these hairs are broken through friction, they naturally release chemicals—one of which is formic acid, also found in ant venom—that cause a stinging sensation on our skin. This reaction may also cause itchy bumps to appear on the skin. Certainly not everyone's favorite thing to experience!
If you brush past Nettle and do get stung, do not fret! A Nettle sting is not harmful (just a bit painful!) and it can be remedied in a variety of ways. Applying the mashed up leaves of Western Dock (Rumex occidentals) or Common Plantain (Plantago major) to the sting may help relieve symptoms. You can also try rubbing the spores found on the underside of the leaflets of Western Sword Fern (Polystichum munitum) onto to the affected area. Or, squish a leaf from the Stinging Nettle itself in between your thumb and pointer fingers and apply the resulting “juice” onto the irritated area for another sting remedy. It really works!
Pat and I consider a student’s first Nettle sting to be almost like a miniature “rite of passage” at Feather and Frond Forest School. It’s a sensory experience that children (and adults) most likely will never forget! Although some folks consider Stinging Nettle to be a pest and choose to avoid it at all costs, we urge you not to avoid it! Stinging Nettle is considered a “superfood” of the forest and consuming this plant can do wonders for your health. High in Vitamins A, C, K, and B’s, Calcium, Magnesium, Iron, and even a bit of protein, Stinging Nettle is truly a treasure. It has been known to treat anemia, relieve pain, decrease inflammation, fight infections, and alleviate allergies.
It’s best to harvest Stinging Nettle greens for eating in the Spring or early summer before the plant goes to seed (In the Fall, we harvest the tall Nettle stalks after they have gone to seed and and use their strong fibers for weaving cordage). Right now in the PNW, the Nettles are great for picking! I've been harvesting the taller ones and leaving the shorties for later in the season.
Young Nettle greens can be harvested by wearing gloves and snipping the tops of the plant just above the nodes with scissors to allow for healthy continuous growth throughout the season. Or, you can take the adventurous route and pick a leaf with your bare hands. Here’s how: use your pointer and thumb fingers to fold the top of a leaf into itself and then gently pluck it off the stalk. There's no guarantee that you won’t get stung this way, but there seems to be less stinging hairs present on the tops of the leaves than on the bottoms!
Stinging Nettle may be cooked in boiling water, dried, or blended to break down the stingers. The dried leaf is excellent for tea. The fresh greens taste great when added to stir-fry’s, blended into green smoothies, or used to create our personal favorite: Nesto! AKA Nettle pesto. Here's how we like to make it:
Nesto (Nettle Pesto) Recipe
-4 cups loosely packed fresh Stinging Nettle tops
-1/2 cup freshly grated romano or parmesan-reggiano cheese (optional, but it makes the pesto tastes really good, and it may give your kiddo that extra motivation to eat it! For a dairy-free pesto, substitute with nutritional yeast or vegan cheese)
-1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
-1/3 cup pine nuts (roasted or raw— sub with cashews for a less expensive version)
-2 garlic cloves (roasted or raw, try more if you really like garlic!)
-Squeeze of lemon
-1/2 tsp of salt
-Pepper to taste
Step 1- Harvest the young Nettle greens (see above for tips on how to do so) and wash and dry them well (or if you live in the PNW, that fresh rain should suffice!)
Step 2- This is where you decide if you want to blanch the Nettles or keep them raw. Feel free to experiment to see which version you like better! I prefer to use raw Nettles.
Step 3- Place all ingredients into the bowl of a food processor. Process until they form into a thick, smooth paste.
Step 4- Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper.
Step 5- Toss Nesto with pasta, or use as a dip or spread for a delicious way to add nourishing wild foods to your dinner table.
Hope you and your family get out foraging for some Stinging Nettles at some point this Spring, and if you do, we'd love to hear all about your favorite way to cook with this delicious and nutritious wild edible. Pat and I feel super grateful that Stinging Nettles grow so abundantly here in western Washington-- it's really such a blessing!