Spring has arrived here in the PNW and with it the ubiquitous Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica). The bounty that this special native forest plant has to offer is now at our (tingling!) finger tips. The deep green tender new shoots are sprouting rapidly upward in the warmth of the spring sunshine here on Southern Vancouver Island.
One of the very first plants to emerge in our rainforest ecosystem here in the PNW as we transition from winter to spring, Nettle is an ally that can help us adapt to the seasonal transition on each level of body, mind, and spirit. I have often thought of Nettle as a warm spirit that brings the element of fire to the spring in our damp West Coast forest. I can imaging the new shoots like little candle flames warming and drying up the dampness of the forest floor and bring in new life and vibrancy into the changing season, and into our lives, initiating us into the spring time also taking place inside of us.
Nettles are a true gift to our bodies, a wild 'superfood' that you can find for free on the forest floor. The new green shoots are high in protein, and chock full of minerals and vitamins, specifically iron, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, and vitamins A, C and K, as well as several B vitamins.
Nettle fortifies us, gives us endurance, and clears the excess dampness and stagnation from the body that often accumulates during the winter months here in the PNW. As we move through each seasonal cycle together, the plants so generously offer us a helping hand and share with us their wisdom and medicine. In return we may offer them our love and gratitude, and good stewardship of the lands we share.
Nettle in the Kitchen
Spring Nettle shoots can be prepared as a braising green, in a similar way to how you would prepare Spinach or Kale. Nettle works as a wonderful substitute for either of these in any dish. The taste of Nettles is rich and green, sweet and earthy. I love the taste of nettles and I love the way my body feels after eating them, so energized and vital. Nettles can be added to soups, smoothies, and dried for tea. Once the nettles are cooked, juiced, pureed, dried, or prepared into medicines they no longer sting.
Contrary to popular belief, Nettle can indeed be eaten raw. In its raw state you will enjoy the greatest content of health-giving enzymes, vitamins and chlorophyll. My favourite way to eat raw Nettle greens is to prepare Nettle & Herb Pesto, check out our recipe here. Blending the Nettles in the food processor inactivates the stingers, letting you enjoy the delicious flavour of the spring greens raw.
And if you are feeling brave…I will share with you a trick to eat the leaves directly off the plant without stinging your mouth. The secret is that upper surface of the leaves have very few stingers when compared to the stems and undersides of the leaves. The first step is to simply grasp the two large leaves below the central leaf bud and turn them upside down. Then use them to enclose the central leaf bud and pluck it off the plant.
This will look somewhat like a little leaf bud sandwich with the undersides of the two outer leaves (the ‘bread’ of the sandwich) facing inward toward the central leaf bud within (the ‘filling’ of the sandwich). The little green sandwich can be rolled up to resemble a large pill, and the few stingers that may be visible on the outside can then be rubbed off. Place this little pill between the molars on one side of your mouth and chew. The taste is incredible, so fresh and so vibrant.
Warning! It may take a little practice to get the method right on your own without me there to demonstrate for you. Proceed at your own risk!
Nettle in the Apothecary
With its nutritive and cleansing properties, Nettle is a true spring tonic. Taken as a food, herbal honey, infused vinegar, or as a long infusion, Nettle can be useful for anemia and nutrient deficiencies. (Note: the tincture isn’t as helpful here as it won’t have the same abundant mineral content of the other preparations). Nettle’s diuretic action is cleansing to the body, acting to increase the flow of urine. This action helps to flush out the accumulation of substances that may have built up in our joints, helping to relieve stiffness or chronic rheumatic pain.
The diuretic action also makes Nettle useful in tea or tincture formulas for bladder infections. It combines well with urinary antiseptics such as Yarrow (Achillea millifolium), and other supportive herbs such as St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum) (both of which are used in our Bladder Benefit Tincture). Nettle tea can also be a useful as a general bladder tonic to improve function by toning the tissues of the urinary tract, and making flow more productive.
Nettle can be restorative to the healthy functioning of the female reproductive system. It is useful for regulating menstruation, and helps to reduce excessive bleeding. The proteins and minerals in the herb help to nourish the body and build blood. This can help to replenish the iron lost through menstruation, and also promote healthy menstrual flow.
A very safe herb, with virtually no contraindications, Nettle may be used throughout pregnancy and nursing. Its nutritive properties are a great aid here, as well as its gentle action as a uterine tonic. It combines well with both Alfalfa (Medicago sativa) and Milky Oats (Avena sativa) for this purpose.
Cooling to inflammatory conditions in the body, Nettle and is wonderful internally (or externally - see below on urtification) for rheumatism and arthritic conditions. The myriad of anti-inflammatory compounds found in its leaves, such as caffeic acid and quercitin, also make it a powerful antihistamine for seasonal allergies.
Interestingly, Nettle harvest season coincides with the blooming of the majority of our native deciduous trees such as Red Alder, Big Leaf Maple, and Western Balsam Poplar. Nettle is right there for us to rely on when the mass amounts of air-borne pollen that these trees produce cause allergy-like symptoms in spring time. For many people (including myself) a simple cup of Nettle tea can provide great relief.
For those that suffer more deeply with irritated mucous membranes and the resulting watery-eyes, runny nose, and sneezing that can come with the allergy season, Nettle tincture taken daily can aid as a great preventative, as well as ease symptoms once they emerge. Nettle infused honey is also wonderful, especially with the added antiallergic benefits of local unpasteurized honey. We have both fresh Nettle Tincture and Nettle Herbal Honey available in our online shop.
We also offer an Allergy Easer Tincture blend that contains a team of seasonal-allergy supportive herbs. Along with Nettle, this blend includes other natural antihistamine and inflammation-reducing herbs such as Ambrosia (Ambrosia chamissonis), Goldenrod (Solidego lepida), Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), and Pearly Everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea). This blend is also offered as a herbal honey, our Allergy Easer Herbal Honey.
Intentionally (gently) stinging myself with the first fresh Nettles I come upon has become a ritual for me each spring. It helps to initiate me into the active part of myself and the busy season ahead. In my work I am fortunate to get to follow the natural patterns of the seasons, winter time being a much needed period of dormancy before the rush of busyness that comes with the spring season on the farm. Both symbolically and physically, the stings wake up my body and spirit and help prepare me for the season ahead.
In fact, this process of intentionally stinging oneself is actually a herbal remedy in itself. Fresh picked nettles are used to stimulate the skin surface in a process called ‘urtification’ which is used to treat arthritis and rheumatism. The nettle stings act as a counter-irritant creating minor pain that distracts the nervous system into overlooking the deeper pain. The chemicals in the stingers also cause a superficial inflammatory reaction which triggers the body to release more of its own healing anti-inflammatory compounds to the area.
Urtification brings circulation to the tissues surround the joints and can relieve stiffness and swelling. The process is truly effective for deep joint pain and I would highly recommend those of you who are suffering to give it a try at least once. Many people swear by this method of utilizing the medicine of Nettle, and find several days to an entire week of relief after only one treatment.
I had long heard about the healing properties of urtification, also commonly known as ‘nettling’, before gaining the courage to try it myself. The sting isn't really so bad, really nothing compared to a bee sting, and is often more like a strong tingling sensation. Though intense initially, for most folks the stinging quickly subsides within minutes, and the after-effect is like a warm soothing tingly balm. There are individuals that may react more strongly, so make sure to test a small patch of skin first.
With the relationship I have built with Nettle and its medicine, I feel honoured to have this plant in my life, and have learned to cherish its sting!
Nettle is a plant that can be respectfully wildcrafted from most locations with great ease and and confidence. The aerial (above ground) parts are the most commonly utilized part of the plant for both food and medicine, though both the seeds and the roots also have their different and important uses. Make sure to avoid road sides and ditches, or other areas that may have been polluted, as Nettle tends to bioaccumulate substances found in its environment (including toxins).
The season for harvesting nettles here on Southern Vancouver Island is long and plentiful beginning in late-February and peaking in April or May depending on the season. The new green shoots can be harvested as soon as they are 4-6” high for use as a fresh food or for drying. These tender new shoots are most ideal for culinary use, as the texture is most succulent at this time and the flavour is most sweet and earthy. The new shoots also contain the highest percentage of bio-available minerals.
As the plants sprout up to a foot high and begin showing the very first signs of budding up to flower, the many medicinal properties of the Nettles begin to become concentrated in the leaves. At this stage it is a prime time to harvest the upper portion of the plants for medicinal use. They may still be used in the kitchen at this point, though some aspects of the nutritional content will have begun to decrease.
The period when the Nettle plants begin to open up their tiny pale-green flower buds, is generally considered to be the end of the harvest period for use as both a food and a medicine. At this time all those wonderful minerals that were beneficial to us in the new shoots will have become larger in structure, forming crystals that may irritate the kidneys if consumed.
When harvesting, gardening gloves are recommended to protect your hands from the stingers that cover the leaves and stems of the Nettle plants. Remember, these stingers are most abundant on the stem and undersides of the leaves, and upper portion of the leaves generally have less. The plants may be snipped down to a few inches above the ground, leaving one or two sets of leaves so that the plants can regrow easily from the dormant buds resting in the leaf axis.
Nettle in the Garden
In the wild, Nettle chooses its home among the Alder, Poplar and Maple groves, with the dappled sunshine that is filtered through the trees and the moist, loose, hummus-rich soil created by the decomposing tree leaves offered to the soil each fall. With these conditions Nettle thrives and forms extensive patches connected by slender underground rhizomes. Its growth pattern is quite similar to garden Mint (Mentha spp), though it is not quite as aggressive.
Nettle is a perennial herb that can be grown in Zones 2-10. It can be grown easily from seed, or root division. As with many native plants, the seeds germinate best when sown outdoors in the fall or very early spring, but I have also found good germination when the seeds were started indoors in spring. We offer Nettle Seeds in our online store, and we also offer plants by request (plants are shipped within Canada only).
The tiny Nettle seedlings will take a full season to become established and must have access to regular watering. In the spring of the second season the plants begin to grow vigorously and may be harvested. Nettle plants will die-back each fall and re-sprout from dormant roots each spring. Once you establish a Nettle patch in your garden it will be there to enjoy an abundance of nutritious and healing spring greens year after year.