Nettle is one of my favorite herbs. There’s a special excitement that comes with nettle’s emergence in the spring since it’s one of the first herbal medicines and wild foods we can harvest each year. Nettle is abundant, easily recognizable and very useful.
Urtica, as it’s known in Latin, is a widespread plant that grows throughout North America. It tends to grow in disturbed areas such as fields, roadsides, ditches and empty lots. The plant is fairly adaptable and though often found in areas of full sunlight, nettle patches do grow in the forest in partial light. Most often nettles make their home in some kind of fringe area such as the border between fields and woods, or along streams. They reproduce via underground rhizomes, forming patches, as well as by seed.
In the Pacific Northwest, nettles typically start emerging in February. In climates with snowier winters the timing is later. The tops are harvestable until the plants begin flowering in about May. To harvest the tops, pinch or cut the stems below the top four leaves. After you do this, the nettle will continue to grow, branching from the point where you cut into two stems instead of one.
To harvest ethically, do not pick the whole patch – pick about one in every 10 plants as a rule of thumb. Gauge how abundant your area is, and only harvest a small part of it accordingly.
There are lots of ways you can use nettle’s leaves. You can eat them as a steamed vegetable with butter, include them in a stir fry, put them in soup, or bake them into something like quiche. By eating them you’ll get all the nutritional content of the leaf including nettles’ high protein level.
You can also make tea from fresh nettle leaves, which some find really helpful for spring allergies. Unfortunately the dried leaf does not have this same effect. If you want to preserve the nettle to treat allergies throughout the year – including pet allergies – you can tincture the fresh leaves. Though there isn’t space to cover how to make a tincture here, this is something you can easily learn searching online or through talking to others.
Another way to preserve the fresh leaves is by chopping them up and putting them in vinegar. Apple cider vinegar is best. Heat the vinegar at least once with the leaves in it, though not to boiling. Vinegar is great at extracting minerals from plants, and you’ll be left with a mineral-rich vinegar you can use as food. You can eat it as part of a salad dressing, for example.
A fourth way you can use nettle leaves is by drying them for tea or eating – this preserves the nettle leaves for year-round use, and gives you an incredible mineral-rich tea or food. Nettles are a local powerhouse, and packed with nutrition, most notably iron. One option other than using the dried leaves in soups or for tea is to powder the leaves and add them to foods such as smoothies.
The photo of nettle here shows it in flower. When the nettle starts to grow flower buds and flower, that’s when it’s time to stop harvesting the leaves. This leads us on to a new part of nettle’s life cycle, and eventually, two new medicines. The seeds and roots of nettle can also be used, but for different purposes than the leaf. The stalk can be used to make twine as well, but all of this will be covered in a future blog.