Friday, 24 July 2015

Nettles and me, a love story

(Originally published 18 September 2014 here )

(A reader asks for a post on nettle, and only nettle, from germination to harvest and use. In keeping with my policy that I can't speak from a position of authority, only from personal experience, here's what I've come up with. Questions and requests for clarification most welcome!)

It began with a potluck supper at our cottage. Cathy arrived bearing a grocery bag. Plunking it somewhat unceremoniously on the counter she said, simply, "Nettles. Be careful".

I was awe struck. I'd read about them for years. One old herbal text had a particularly lovely coloured plate illustration of the plant and I'd stared at it many a winter's night, my imagination conjuring the taste of that emerald green beauty as I imagined it steamed and slathered in butter. With salt and pepper.

I opened the bag. It was less than half full. I remember being charmed that the stems had a pinkish tinge. They had grit on them. I reached in to pull them out and YOW! Holy crap that hurt! I had merely brushed one leaf and my hand felt as though I'd just met the business end of a wasp. I heard a chuckle come from Cathy and she came to the kitchen to rescue me. Filling a basin with water, she dumped the nettles in without touching them. The she sent me outside, directing, "find plantain, do the spit poultice thing, you'll be fine."

I did, and I was, but now of course we'll have to take a little side trip to the plantain patch together, won't we? It isn't possible, or right, for me to talk about nettle without talking about plantain.

It is the most lowly of weeds. Dandelion gets all the glory these days, which is all well and good, but some day plantain's day must come. If you look it up I'm sure you'll say, "what, that stuff? It's everywhere!" Indeed, it is, and once it came to North America the Natives called it "white man's footprint" as it follows us where ever we go. A flat rosette of dull green leaves with prominent veins, one stem above, a small spike of seeds. It grows on driveways, in sidewalk cracks, on the worn paths through fields, on the edge of gravel roads, between patio stones. It splits open the surface of parking lots all over the world and will be one of the plants to bring down civilisation. But I digress. Everywhere we are, so is plantain, at our heels.

A "spit poultice" means you take the nicest looking leaf, pop it in your mouth and chew. It is somewhat bitter when mature, not unpleasant when young. But then, I may just be used to it. It tastes very very green. Chew it to a pulp, then spit the pulp onto a skinned knee, a mosquito bite or wasp sting or (yes) nettle sting and hold it there for a while with your hand. Instant relief. Every time.

As I recall, we put the nettles into the stew I had bubbling on the wood stove. They nearly melted into it, much like spinach would. Cathy had gathered just the growing tops of the plants, with the top 2 sets of leaves, no more. We swished them in the basin of water to get the grit out ("ow ow ow!" said I. Cathy laughed at me. She didn't flinch!) They were just roughly chopped then put in the pot where they simmered for some length of time, no doubt. Copious wine always flowed at those potlucks and dinner was barely an afterthought.

Some weeks later when we visited her farm she showed me her huge patch, explaining that as the dogs love to pee on it, she always picked from the back. Good to know! She also explained that nettle seems to love to be peed on - in other words, a nitrogen rich soil makes them happy.

Once I knew what they looked like in the flesh, so to speak, I was on the hunt. I've learned, over the years, that they seem to live near farm gates, the old wooden ones of abandoned farms, and near the barns too. They like some sun, but if they're in full sun they'll mature past the eating stage before I can get to them.

There's a tinge of colour to young nettles. When they're tiny, they can be almost red, then they change to a purplish hue with a hint of rose to the stem before becoming emerald green. This can make them easier to spot - easier, not easy. Nettles are cagey. We don't forage for nettles so much as hunt them. I've learned to look for plantain, first, for two reasons. First, because even though, like Cathy, I can now pick nettles without gloves and have learned to love the sting, even I can get fed up and need the spit poultice. Second, because it seems plantain is a sort of marker for nettle, where ever I see a seemingly large patch of plantain there may well be nettle nearby.

Another tangent, sorry. Most outdoors-y types will tell you, and it's true, that whenever you run into trouble with some plant or other, the cure is within 10 feet of what got you. Poison ivy? Look around, there is jewel weed. Rag weed allergy? There's golden rod, or maybe asters. Nettles? Plantain. However, sometimes, with plantain, it doesn't indicate nettles, but those dastardly biters, deerflies or blackflies. So I have learned is the case in my world, at least.

The sting of nettles is, of course, one of its gifts. Like bee sting therapy, it is good for the nerves, and although at the end of a nettle-ing day I may have lost some sensation in my fingertips it feels good. There is something called a nettle high that we foragers can become addicted to which I couldn't possibly explain, you'll know it if you ever feel it. Then there's urtication, which is to lightly whip an aching body part with a leafy stem, which is less painful than an accidental encounter and really does help, we've recently learned in this house. Pinched nerves and muscle aches have both responded well to that treatment and my (Scottish) grandmother swore by it for her aching knees.

The way nettles sometimes make me, and some women I know, a bit prickly of personality may well be a good thing in its way as well. Women, and I suppose some men, are a little lax about having personal boundaries. I think the "nettle mood" might be helping us with that. And they certainly help with the weepies, in their way. It may not stop those tears, but nettle infusion, with its strength giving ways, has helped me face what's causing them.

As I've said before, menopause offers us moments when we think we're crying for no "good" reason. Mindfulness - the kind we need in the nettle patch - shows us there is always some reason. The good comes, like in the old expression, when we grasp the nettle.

Because interestingly enough, the way to get nettle to not sting (as much) is to take it firmly in hand, well, one finger and your thumb, actually, right on the stem, just above a set of leaves. Once you get how to deftly snap it off at that point, there's a lot less swearing and grief to your task.

See? There are many gifts from nettle, woven together like the fisherman's net it can be made into.

I now have a nettle patch in my own yard so I don't have to go on the hunt (but of course I still do just because it's fun.) I didn't plant them, they just showed up and I let them stay. I pick them young all through the spring and early summer, and as picking them makes them branch out and produce more young delicious leaves, I can keep going on that patch for some weeks. I do, sometimes, eat them on their own with butter and salt and pepper like I use to dream of, but not steamed, boiled. They're fuzzy when underdone, I like them cooked to the melt-in-your-mouth stage. The cooking water is an emerald green ambrosia that must not be thrown away, I drink it or freeze it for a treat in a winter soup. Most often I throw them in soups or stews as they add such a nice flavour. I eat a lot of soup in nettle season!

Eating nettles just makes me feel strong. In early spring, we're often run down from months of being inside, from lack of really genuinely fresh food. Yet spring is the time of year we have to hit the ground running, turning soil, cleaning up the yard, chores galore that we are unlikely to have the energy for. Nettles fix that. I'll eat them every day until their season passes, along with other wild things I dare not mention here for fear of ending up on yet another tangent. Because nettles are part of a larger picture it's hard to speak of them and not the others ...

Once I've had my fill of the fresh ones, and when Paul starts to feel I've snuck enough of them into his meals thankyouverymuch, I start to gather them for drying. For eating, we take only the tender tips, but if picking them to use for infusions or vinegars we can take more of the plant, say the top 6 sets of leaves. I hang them in smallish bunches to dry in an airy place away from the sun. They dry quickly, but as I am lazy (as are most wildcrafters) they often hang longer and come to no harm. Once they're dry enough that they feel crispy, I pack them in paper bags and put those into either a large ziplock bag or jar and keep them in the dark. They must not get the least bit damp or they're toast, I'm afraid. Kept this way, they can last for a few years, as long as they look and smell good they're usable.

Nettle infusion, my way, may not be as strong as, say Susun Weed with her ounce of nettle per quart of water. I just take a large pinch of dried nettle, put it in the jar (usually a quart, sometimes smaller) and fill that with boiling water, screw on the lid. It sits on the counter overnight, then I drink it throughout the next day. It turns a lovely green after a while. What I don't drink that day goes in the fridge. Nettle is one of those plants that is high in protein, so it has to be refrigerated. The plant parts are given back to the garden, composted or even given to a potted plant. The left over infusion is excellent for cooking rice.

I don't drink nettle infusion as often as I used to. Without it during menopause I may have faded away into la-la land. Some foods give you energy, nettles gave me strength - of both body and spirit - to carry on. In those days I was still cleaning rich women's houses in the city. The commute, the work, the commute again, it was, looking back, a pretty rough time. I also had what was looking like fibromyalgia. Whether it was the nettles or the nettles and all the other plants and some good physio, I got through that time and no longer have that demoralizing, brutal pain. I know nettles played a large part. While others I knew ended up on the hormone and pain killer ride that they never could get off again, I was able to make it through without. A blessing, truly.

And my hair always looked fabulous! (Still does, if I may say so) Perhaps this sounds like vanity, but it was a relief. Many women complain of lackluster hair during the Change. With everything else we go through that just seems so unfair, don't you think? I can't prove it, but I believe it kept my bones from crumbling, too. It's high in calcium and magnesium and that most useful Vit K, they tell me. But this isn't a science piece, so let's move along.

Nettle vinegar is delish for salad dressings or on rice or any way I can think of to use vinegar. Easy to make, I just fill a jar loosely with nettles, (its ok if they're a little ragged) and then fill it again with apple cider vinegar. It sits for a month or longer, it doesn't go bad. Don't use a metal lid, if that's all you have put a piece of saranwrap under it so it doesn't rust. I also use that vinegar as a hair rinse, a sploosh to a basin of water, rinse and soak. That does wonders for itchy scalp and gives me shiny, bouncy hair that I don't have to wash as often.

Now, in fall, nettles have a second flush of new growth, and I'm picking them for soups again. I freeze them sometimes, too, in cubes, just chop, fill the cube tray, add a little water, put them in the freezer and when they're solid, pop them out and store them in baggies. I once found a hockey puck size mess of frozen nettles that I have no memory of freezing in the bottom of my deep freeze. They must have been years old but when they thawed looked and tasted just picked. Amazing

Last year, I started to experiment with both the roots and the seeds.

For the roots, I made what is called a decocted tincture. I took some of the roots (which also sting, by the way, no matter what some books say) and simmered them in water for quite a long time, then let it cool. More roots I chopped up and put in a jar, covering them with vodka. When the water had cooled, I added it, strained, to the vodka & roots. That sat for months, simply because we didn't feel the need to use it yet, until my husband complained of having to pee too many tiimes in the night. Knowing it's used in Europe for prostate issues, I got him taking it. I'd like to say it was 3x per day, so many drops etc, like the authorities will direct but it just doesn't happen like that in real life. Or at least not around here. It was more of an occasional thing, sometimes once a day, sometimes every few days. Yet he still saw improvement and (ahem, I hope he doesn't mind me saying so) he got pretty frisky, too!

Now I'm reading here and there that the peeing in the night thing is not necessarily a prostate issue after all, it can simply be a lack of magnesium in the diet. Nettles have magnesium. So there you go. (When I think of all the complications that arise from the way they mess, often needlessly, with men's prostates it makes my blood boil. Try getting some magnesium into your husbands ladies, don't put him through all that!)

As to the seeds, well, the jury is still out for me on nettle seeds. I'm pretty sensitive, so your mileage may vary, but I've found that nibbling on just a few of those tiny green beauties has me buzzing like I've done a line of coke. Well, not really a good comparison, I've never done a line of coke so I wouldn't really know. But it's a little mind blowing, the effect, almost like too much caffeine but without the jitters. I got tons of work done the few times I've nibbled on them. It's more energy than strength, though, unlike eating the leaves or drinking the infusion. The mental clarity is very nice, and it doesn't stop me from sleeping. But my inner bell says not to use them too often, so I haven't. I've read the dose is by the teaspoonful but there is no way I could tolerate that much!

Nettles make excellent fertilizer, a good thing to do if you need to cut back your nettles when they get unruly in the summer (they'll grow back, they're weeds!). I've made a stink-to-high-heaven brew, a sort of compost tea with nettles and comfrey and seaweed that saved a young fruit tree's life, by steeping the plants in a bucket for a couple of weeks. I'm not kidding about the stink. Mostly I just chop 'n drop, tossing them here and there on the parts of the garden I think may need a boost. Along with yarrow, they're compost activators, or so I hear, I can't say I've noticed the compost goes faster when I add them (but I do it anyway).

Now, nettles are in the class of herbaceous perennials, meaning they die back every winter and come up again in spring. They spread by root but also produce thousands of tiny seeds per plant. I have never grown them from seed, so although I have some on offer I have no idea what the germination rate would be. If I was to try growing them by seed, I'd do what I always do - toss them all over the garden and where ever they do best is where they stay. However, this could lead to too many nettles, I suppose (as if there is such a thing!). In nature, they'd drop to the ground or be carried by animals and may germinate in autumn or they may germinate in spring so they may actually need to freeze to germinate, I honestly don't know.

I have yet to try the root tincture as a hair restorer, it hasn't come up, but I'd be interested to hear from anyone who's tried it. Nor have I fermented them ... yet! Some day I may try making paper from them, and I'd like to try adding dried nettles to soda bread, I'll bet that would be interesting looking/tasting. I'm not one for "green drinks", because I like my infusions, but lots of people put them (dried) into smoothies, that might be something I'll try one day too.

So there's plenty yet for me to learn about nettles. This is a long term love affair, not a fling. When they came up on their own in my garden I felt like they'd made a commitment to me for life. What an honour. I know they're a weed, I know, too, that they're disliked by many because, well, ow. To me, they represent the generosity of nature, and the wisdom, too.

"Nettles are so well known, that they need no description; they may be found by feeling, in the darkest night."

                        Nicholas Culpeper
                                                      (18 October 1616 – 10 January 1654)

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