Growing up on a dairy farm in Wisconsin, I had the luxury of spending many spring days in the woods gathering a variety of wild foods; morel mushrooms, dandelion flowers, watercress and even stinging nettles. As a child, the chore of gathering nettles was full of challenges. As an adult, I realize how fortunate I am to live in an area where food grows freely and abundantly all around me.
Stinging nettles are an amazing free food that helps rebuild our systems when so few local greens are available. The nutritional benefits of stinging nettles are delivered in a balanced form, easily assimilated and absorbed into our systems.
Nettles contain extremely high levels of calcium, magnesium, potassium, silica, and iodine. They are a good source of vitamin C, beta-carotene, and B complex vitamins. Nettles also have high levels of easily absorbable amino acids and contain ten percent protein, more than any other vegetable. They has long been revered for their benefits to the kidneys and adrenals, strengthen bones, hair, and nails and nurture the lungs, nervous, hormonal, and immune systems –that covers a lot of ground. Nettles also have cleansing and antiseptic properties, so using them in facial steams and rinses can be beneficial.
Harvest nettles in the early spring until they start to flower. If you have un-calloused fingers wear gloves and a long sleeve shirt while harvesting. When nettles touch our skin, the tiny hollow hairs on the leaves and stems break off and release formic acid (the same acid some ants have). This acid sometimes irritates the skin, causing white itchy spots to appear. Like any acid, the effects of stinging nettles can be neutralized by mixing it with a base. Applying a paste of baking soda made with a little water soothes the sting for most people. But why run back to the house when the remedy often grows beside the plant? Look for jewel weed or curly dock near your favorite nettle patch. Crush the stems and leaves and rub it on the affected area to sooth the sting.
Use young leaves to replace steamed spinach in any recipe. Cooking nettles eliminates their sting but be careful not to overcook them. Like spinach and other greens, they are best lightly steamed or sautéed. Save the water used in steaming and add it to broths, drink it like tea or use it as a hair rinse. Older bunches of nettles, tough stalks and leaves may be used to enrich flavor and improve mineral content of soups or stews. Simmer them with herbs like rosemary, celery, thyme, onions, wild leeks, or morel mushrooms. Nettle tea tastes like no other. It is not bitter, spicy, minty or lemony. It’s more like a strong stock of rich, deep, green plant essence and one of the most nourishing drinks of all.
Nettle vinegar is easy to make. Tightly pack a glass jar with leaves and stalks (the stalks have as much nutritional value as the leaves). Fill the jar to the top with raw, organic apple cider vinegar. Let it brew for six weeks on your counter top out of direct sun. Add vinegar as needed to keep the plants covered. The vinegar leaches the calcium and other minerals out of the nettles. Use the nettle vinegar on salads, veggies or add a bit to marinades for an extra boost of minerals.