Grasp, love, grasp thy nettle tight!
Beneath the blossom there be stings
Which start and stab; but out of sight
Within that flower lie folded wings
So now, ere these be set on flight
Grasp, lover, grasp thy nettle tight!
Those stings which, lightly touched, do harm–
If those but hold them fast enough;
Spent of their poison shall disarm;
And seeing but a little rough,
Reveal beneath the covert form
So dear, and deep, and close, and warm
–From “Now or Never,” Laurence Housman
The above poem, published in 1915, shares one of the stinging nettle’s secrets–that if you grab the nettle firmly, rather than gently, the nettle stings will break off harmlessly and you can handle it without the sting. But reaching for it tentatively will have the stings all in your skin! Nettle is one of my very favorite wild foods and medicinal plants, so this week’s post is devoted to nettle’s edible, medicinal, and magical qualities. This is a good time to be gathering nettles–and eating them with all the other wild and tasty treats of the season (like chicken of the woods mushrooms and black raspberries!) I’ll also share some harvesting tips and recipes I’ve developed for enjoying nettles.
Nettles, Nettles, Everywhere
Around where I live in PA, we have two kinds of nettle: stinging nettle (urtica dioica) which is a very common plant throughout the US, and is native to Europe, Western Africa, and Asia (and naturalized here in the US). Stinging nettles (urtica dioca) typically show up on the edges of forests–I’ve found really nice patches of it on the edge of baseball fields, for example, right where the forest brushes up against the lawn. I’ve also found it in the open around structures, like barns, and sometimes in open fields. Sometimes it is in a stand on its own, and sometimes, it is woven in with other plants. It prefers a sunny, less moist setting than its woodland cousin.
Wood nettle (laportea canadensis) is a native plant to the Americas. It prefers the moist, deep forest. I find it almost exclusively in bottom areas that either hold a lot of moisture or that have some flooding. Most often, I find it in small or medium-sized creek beds (sometimes on the edges or even in the middle) with lots of shade. Forest swampy parts also often hold this delightful plant.
The sting of wood nettle is not as potent as that of stinging nettle–some wood nettles have a lot less stingers on them. Both are equally enjoyable and share nearly all of the same qualities from an edible, medicinal, and magical standpoint.
Nettle as Awareness Medicine
When I was a kid, I remember being stung by nettles and carefully rubbing jewelweed on my stings to soothe them. Back then though, I only knew I wanted to avoid the nettle, so I paid careful attention to where it grew. This is one of nettle’s many lessons: nettle awareness medicine. It teaches us how to pay much closer attention to our surroundings, and reminds us that there are consequences for failing to do so. Most people stop at nettle’s stinging qualities; the stings, in the form of fine hairs with irritating chemicals, often prevent people from knowing nettle’s deeper mysteries. But if we instead grasp it tightly, so much of the medicine and magic of the nettle opens up before us.
Fire and Water as Transforming Agents
Nettle is transformed from a stingy plant that you don’t want to touch to a delightful and tasty medicine and food–with the simple application of heat, water, (steam) and time. In the nettle, we see our own inner alchemical processes at work: our rough edges and prickles sometimes have to be transformed through the fires of alchemy. If we allow them to remain, we can never get to our healing or enjoy the fruits of our labor. But if we are able to transmute these qualities, we have the potential for reaping great rewards.
Nettles stings are also therapeutic (see below); specifically, they bring a flush of new blood to areas that are stung, addressing stagnation in the body’s system. I believe that nettle works on the same level spiritually and offers a powerful lesson. Sometimes, we can’t avoid the pain of living and life, but it is in these most painful moments that we are able to clear away old stagnant patterns of living that no longer serve us. Sometimes, it is because of this pain that we have new opportunities for deeper growth.
You can harvest nettles simply either by doing what the poem above says–grasping the nettles tightly (although you are still bound to get stung!)–or you can use gloves and a pair of scissors like I do :). You can harvest the tops of nettles anytime, especially before they start going to seed. Once they have gone to seed, they get quite woody (but are still good for tea, but not for fresh eating). They eventually get really mineral-tasting, which is great for tea still, but not so good for fresh eating.
Nettles can be harvested very sustainably and ethically, especially if they are in abundance. If you bend stinging nettle plants down to the ground, they will send up new shoots, which you can then harvest. If you cut the tops off of them, they will also send up new shoots (sometimes multiple sets), which you can also harvest. I spend my summers harvesting from the same nettle patch multiple times–coming back a two or so weeks later gives you a completely new batch of fresh nettle tops!
Supporting our Body’s Systems and Nettle’s Healing Powers
Nettle is both an incredible nurturing food but also a top-rate medicinal; I daresay it is one of the most widely useful and practical plants we have in the local ecosystem here. First of all, it has a tremendous amount of minerals and vitamins: vitamin K, protein, iron, and magnesium (of which we are nearly all deficient).
Nettle is a metabolic tonic that helps address depleted states of the adrenals and kidneys. It is what we know as an alterative herb, restoring health and balance to the body. While it works slowly, it works well over time and offers a lasting effect. The nettle personality (the person for whom nettle is particularly indicated) i someone who is constantly in the sympathetic nervous system state and is often jumpy, nervous, twitchy or anxious. Nettle helps bring people out of the sympathetic nervous system state and back into the parasympathetic.
Cold nettle tea is also a great diuretic, which supports the urinary tract and the kidneys.
Even nettle’s sting also has benefit. It is used as an alternative treatment for any stagnant conditions of the circulatory system and the blood, particularly for arthritis and osteoarthritis. Tendonitis can be treated by stinging the affected area and adding a salve of Solomon’s seal oil or a yellow dock leaf. Nettles sting can also be used to treat the loss of sensation in the body (e.g. in the fingers after an accident).
Some Nettle Recipes
Because Nettle is so abundant, I have developed a number of recipes that showcase nettle in a variety of ways. Here are a few of my favorites:
Nettle French Onion Dip
- 1/2 cup of nettles (fresh)
- 1 small onion
- 1/2 cup of sour cream
- Olive oil
This is a very simple dip–I recently made this for my plant walk, and it was a huge success! Bring water to a boil, add the nettles, and boil 3-4 minutes to remove the sting. Drain and press the nettles to get the excess water out. They will look a lot like cooked spinach. Meanwhile, in a cast-iron skillet, saute your onions in olive oil until they are brown.
Add the nettles and the onion into a food processor and process until chopped. Add salt to taste, and sour cream. If you let the flavors meld in the fridge for a few hours, this dip is even tastier!
Nettle Pesto (Vegan)
For a simple nettle pesto, combine 1/2 cup blanched nettles with 1/4 cup pine nuts or walnuts, 1/4 cup olive oil, 1/2 cup basil, and salt to taste (you can also add Parmesan cheese to it if you like!). You can eat this fresh on pasta or sandwiches or freeze it.
Nettle Palak Paneer (veg/vegan)
Palak paneer is one of my favorite Indian dishes; when I had a ton of nettle available, I thought, why not create nettle paneer? You can do one of two things: make it all nettles or make it spinach + nettles. Either way, it is absolutely delicious!
- 2 cups of nettles, blanched (about 4 cups before cooking) (You can also go 50/50 on the nettles with spinach)
- 1/2 cup paneer cheese (substitute extra firm tofu)
- 1 medium onion (cut finely)
- 1/2 chunk of ginger (shredded/cut finely)
- 1 Small tomato (finely chopped)
- 6 tbsp ghee or cooking oil
- salt, to taste
- 2 cloves garlic
- 2-3 green chilies (depending on your spice level)
- 3 tbps of cream (optional)
Begin by blanching your nettles (and spinach, if you are using it). While it is blanching, you also want to fry your ghee/tofu in 3 tbsp of the ghee or cooking oil, browning them on all sides.
Strain your nettles and spinach, and allow to cool a bit. Then, add them to your food processor and process them a bit to make a rough puree.
In a skillet, combine 3 tbsp of ghee/cooking oil with the ginger, onion and garlic and saute for about 5 min until everything goes translucent. Add chilies and tomato and saute for another 2-3 min. Add the pureed nettles and paneer cheese, season to taste. If you want, you can add 3 or so tbsp of fresh cream.
Serve this over rice–delicious!
Vegan options: tofu instead of paneer, use cooking oil, omit the cream.
Nettle Nervine Nourishing Tea
I find nettle tea to be a really delightful treat. My favorite tea blend, one that supports and nourishes the body, is the following:
- 1 part nettle leaves, dried
- 1 part oats, dried (whole oats, not crushed oats) or oatstraw
- 1 part lemon balm
- 1 part catnip
Blend these together and make an herbal infusion. Boil water, add herbs, put a lid on it, and seep for at least 10 min. Enjoy with some raw honey!
I hope that you take the opportunity to get to know this amazing, incredible, nurturing, and healing plant!