Don’t needle me too hard for missing out on this one.
Though I have a sharp eye when it comes to wild edibles, somehow stinging nettles passed me by. As one of the first spring greens, they can be consumed when they first leaf out in early to mid-April. Even at the end of April it is possible to pick this plant, but don’t wait too much longer than that.
Eating it at the end of May might be a mistake. After stinging nettle blooms, it develops gritty particles called cystoliths. These cystoliths are cells that contain calcium carbonate and can irritate your system, even damaging your liver.
Once you see it is flowering (and therefore inedible), note the location of this plant and remember it for next year. Stinging nettles grow in the same place year after year and are found in large groups of plants.
Geoffrey Grigson, author of The Englishman’s Flora, observed that “Woodland is the natural home of the nettle, but it travels round with man, grows out of his rubbish, gets a hold where he has disturbed the ground, clings to the site of his dwelling long after the dwellings themselves have disappeared.”
Once you find a patch, likely there will be plenty for even the most avid aficionado.
Pick this plant at your own peril. Stinging nettle, true to its name, packs a punch. It has hairs called trichomes that actually do sting. These trichomes, found on both the leaves and stems, could be compared to needles, since they inject histamines that produce a stinging sensation in humans and animals. It is no wonder that this plant is also called burn nettle, burn weed and burn hazel. Its genus, Urtica, comes from the root ‘urs,’ which means ‘to burn.’
Once stung, your skin will immediately become irritated. Suggested soothing remedies include curled dock, jewelweed, horsetail, fern spores, baking powder and even saliva; if you get desperate for relief.
Harvest and prepare this plant only when wearing gloves. Once the plant is submerged in hot water, the stinging chemicals are neutralized, so eating it is not a pointed affair. Or be a bit masochistic like the contestants in the Stinging Nettle Eating Championships held in Dorset, England. These folks win the prize by eating the largest amount of raw nettles in the least amount of time. What a prickly predicament to be in! But, somehow, so healthy. Stinging nettles pack a punch in protein. They are more than 25 per cent protein, are rich in vitamins A and C, iron, potassium, manganese and calcium, and have a taste reported to be similar to spinach, cucumbers and split peas. How can you go wrong?
Pain can lead to pleasure when it comes to nettles. Traditional medicinal use included urtication, which is the intentional flogging with nettles as a remedy for chronic rheumatism. A less painful prescription is to shampoo with stinging nettles for a dandruff-free do!
If you can’t bring yourself to eat or shampoo with the stinging stuff, there are other uses for it. Use the roots to make a yellow dye, use the nettles to brew beer, or use the stems as cord or thread. During World War I, nettle fibers replaced cotton to make the Germans’ uniforms.
This plant can also be used for metaphors: Shakespeare’s Hotspur urges that “out of this nettle, danger, we pluck this flower, safety.” If danger and safety are what you seek, consider the risks and rewards when you mettle with nettles.
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.