101 Uses of Nettles*
Greetings plant lovers! Spring is upon us (happy equinox everyone), and the lushness that abounds is a growing thrill to me, and a great source of envy for both my B.C. Interior and eastern relatives. Most of the newer greenery that Mother Nature is landscaping with alongside our roads and sprinkled throughout the island is one of my favourite herbs, Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica). I'm sure it is not new to any islander with their eyes open and protective gear off - ooch! (try rubbing crushed dock leaves on the sting, there's a reason why they grow so closely together). With Nettle being so abundant and "in the way" (how could it be!), i think we should start the spring off with a Nettle Festival, n'est ce pas?
For me as an Interior import (having been a coastal import previous to that), my love and awe for Nettle has been revived. Herbalists are often asked the silly question: what herb would they bring if they were left on a deserted island. Nettle is very often the answer, and definitely my top choice (hoping there'd be other herbs on the island to make a nice tea blend while awaiting the rescue boat). One could survive on Nettles alone if need be, at least for a while.
As you can well imagine, early spring is the best time to harvest and eat Nettle, often considered to be the "great spring cleanser". You see, Nettle is reported to contain a lovely substance called secretin, that helps "cleanse the bowels" of its heavy mucous lining from a winter of couch sitting and holiday debauchery. Nettle is a "super food", containing a significant amount of plant protein, chlorophyll, vitamins A, C and D, and minerals Iron, Calcium, Potassium and Manganese. Most of us have seen a recipe for "Nesto" (pesto with Nettles instead of basil); there's also Nettle lasagna, Nettle soup, creamed Nettles on toast, Nettle juice (a new one for the juice bar? - freeze it in ice cube trays for later), even Nettle ice cream. Herbalist Janice Schofield talks about the Dena'ina Athabascans cooking fish with nettles, and she also reminds us to save any of Nettles' cooking water for soup stock. Nettle tea is a spring standby here, as is Nettle in stirfrys, casseroles...need i go on!
Medicinally, Nettle is used in cases of mild anemia since it is said to be one of the highest sources of plant-digestible iron. For this reason, women are encouraged to take in as much nettles as possible during menstruation, postpartum recovery, and lactation. (Take it easy during pregnancy). The roots are even used, with good data showing its usefulness in treating incontinence and male urinary tract problems. I use Nettle in so many of my tincture formulas, including ones for arthritis, allergies, skin disorders, the lungs, and in just about every one of my tea blends. Powdered, it also makes a star appearance in our Mineral Mix alongside kelp and spirulina. Herbal enthusiasts should read Michael Moore's hilarious take on ‘green powders'; he goes on to say "...you can add it to smoothies and salad dressings; put it in bread; add it to your tea, home beer and so forth. It is a green food your body recognizes and can help build blood, tissue, and self-empowerment." Sold on it yet? (There are even more uses, medically and cosmetically, but this is becoming a novel).
I'm considered to be a picky picker - one should take great care in choosing non-polluted sites to harvest from (ie.: 100 feet from the road and power lines). Make sure you use gloves to collect them, and be comforted by the fact that, when steamed or dried, the stinging is eliminated. (Did you know that some people actually go for the sting, even whipping themselves with nettle bundles to relieve their arthritis?). At the time of this writing, Nettle is in its glory and perfect for picking. Choose plants that are still in their dark green or reddish green phase - older plants and plants in bloom can cause irritation in the kidneys. I usually only pick the top 4-6", which allows the plant to continue to grow and make new shoots for later. Leave some behind for wildlife and for the soil.
I welcome herbal questions of any sort, but make no promises to know the answer - e-mail is best: email@example.com.
Cheers, and peace. Gillian Smith
* this piece was originally published in The Active Page, Galiano Island's monthly zine
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