After months of snow and rain in Seattle, I was ecstatic to find nettles popping up in the woods last weekend. Nettles are my favorite sign of spring because they represent strength, vitality, and brighter days ahead. I have known about nettles my entire life but it wasn't until recently that I started to understand their virtues. My enthonobotony professor (and many other professors) praised nettle as a healing herb that has been valued by Native Americans, Romans, and many other cultures through out history. "Which plant in nature is the closest thing to a hypodermic needle?" "Thistle?" "Bee stings?" This question stumped my entire class and we were not at all surprised to find the answer was in fact, stinging nettle. Just like bee stings and ant bites, nettles release formic acid which can cause a burning (or tingling) sensation that I have grown to actually enjoy. Galacturonic acid, histamine, oxalic acid, and tartic acid are also in this stinging concoction. While getting stung can be irritating, it can also be useful. The Quileute seal hunters would rub themselves with nettle before going out to sea, helping them stay awake throughout the night. Historically people who suffer from arthritis and rheumatism have rubbed the stalks over areas of inflammation for relief. The welts bring fresh nutrient dense blood to those areas helping the body heal naturally. It also encourages the brain to release serotonin :)
There are so many reasons to love nettles but above all, they taste incredible. They are also packed with nutrients that are often hard to get from typical fruits and vegetables. Nettle is one of the best sources of digestible plant iron and is rich in calcium, vitamin A, and chlorophyll.
The most fascinating thing about nettle is that when you accidentally come in contact with it, it can be a painful encounter. But when you pick the leaves with intention and respect you can use your bare hands. The moment your mind starts drifting and you become careless, the plant will likely sting you! (The best remedy for nettle rash is nettle juice). This plant demands that you live in the moment.
It's important not to harvest nettle leaves after the plant has flowered. Older plants contain too much silica which can be irritating to the kidneys. It is recommended to only harvest the top four leaves. Most of these perennials are quite sturdy but there are always a handful of plants that will not give a leaf up requiring the harvester to uproot the entire plant. It is best to let these plants stay put so they will come back next year.
When I harvest nettles I have three things in mind: nettle pesto, dried nettles, and pickled nettles. I try to dry the majority of my nettles so that we can drink it year round (drinking nettle tea daily in the spring can combat allergies). Drying nettle is simple - spread them out over a cookie sheet and drying rack like I have above, or spread them out on newspaper. I usually let them sit 4-7 days or until they are crunchy and small. I then store them in a mason jar. You can also store them in a paper bag but they will go stale quicker.
Fill 3/4 of a quart jar with fresh nettle
Add 3 cloves of garlic
Fill the entire jar with your choice of vinegar, I used white vinegar and apple cider vinegar.
Make sure all nettle leaves are submerged under the vinegar and seal with a lid. Keep in the refrigerator for 4-6 weeks and then try them on toast with fresh raw sheep's milk feta. <- Rosemary Gladstar's recommendation and I can attest to it being a delicious and satisfying snack.