Stinging Nettles

Stinging Nettles

Foraging Stinging Nettles (Urtica dioica)

Few herbs are as generous as the humble stinging nettle. Inconspicuous, it assumes a modest corner in the garden: untended areas, half in the shade, perhaps near the compost where the soil is rich with nitrogen. Inconspicuous that is, until one happens to brush against it carelessly – which jolts our awareness rather painfully.

The Stinging Nettle is a warrior plant, armed with tiny needles that cover him from top to toe, leaves, stems and all. The lightest touch will break off the needle points, just like a hypodermic needle, and inject formic acid under the skin. This causes the sting.

But Nettles don’t just protect themselves with this weaponry – they are extremely hardy and notoriously difficult to exterminate. Even concerted efforts fail to eradicate an established nettle patch. Nettles are earth defenders, they protect disturbed soils and assimilate nutrients. They cleanse and heal the earth and fend off intruders with their stinging needles.

They are often considered a nuisance. Nettles can spread like wildfire and their rhizomes are seemingly incorrigible. Even a tiny part left behind propagates a new colony. Gardeners tend to want to get rid of them by any means they can. They hack and hoe the ground to pull them out, leaving the soil bare and exposed to the elements. If that does not work, they wage a chemical attack on their garden ecology.

Nettles don’t waste any energy on producing pretty flowers. But looks aren’t everything. Even though they themselves don’t smell or look particularly attractive, they make excellent companion plants, by helping their companion to shine. Nettles stimulate the essential oil production in other herbs that grow near them, especially in those of the mint family. Increased levels of essential oils help to make these plants more resilient.

stinging nettle flowers

The much-feared sting may be unpleasant, but it is not necessarily ‘bad’. The Romans used this very property as a therapeutic measure for treating aching arthritic joints by means of nettle flagellation. We don’t tend to apply such heroic therapies anymore, although it is said to have been quite effective. Nowadays we prefer our medicines to come sugar-coated and looking like sweets.

In the olden days, Lent, which is the six week period leading up to Easter, was dedicated to body-purification. People abstained from meat and heavy foods while making use of early spring herbs that act as gentle tonics and bitters. These stimulate the eliminative functions of the body and help to clear out the residues of several months of sedentary winter habits: heavy foods and not enough exercise. It is a process that in older herbals is described as ‘blood cleansing’.

Nettles are among the first herbs that pop up in the spring. Perfect timing for those who are planning to do a herbal spring cleanse. Nettles ‘wash’ the system from the inside. Their powerful diuretic properties stimulate the kidneys, which filter the blood and flush out metabolic waste matter such as uric acid crystals. A by-product of protein metabolism, these crystals tend to lodge in the joints, where they can become extremely painful.

Of all the wonderful early spring tonics Nettles is the star! They are rich in iron, calcium and vitamin A, C, D, E, F, and K. They stimulate and tone the vital organs of the body, promoting elimination without catharsis. They remove waste matter while replenishing the body with nutrients. They not only cleanse the blood, but their iron and vitamin C content also helps the body to make new blood cells.

This tea is very safe and can benefit anybody, though it is particularly beneficial for women who are going through hormonal changes, during puberty, menopause, or pregnancy. Nettles can also help to lower the blood sugar level, which makes them very suitable for those suffering from diabetes 2.

Nettles are not just medicinally useful, but they also make excellent nutritious and tasty wild food. They can be prepared like spinach or other leafy potherb greens. It is best to mix them with other spring herbs such a dandelion, or chickweed, or to add them to mashed potatoes or rice. They have a pleasant, ‘earthy’ flavor, that is adaptable to many dishes and seasonings. Your imagination is the limit.

So, what is the trick to picking nettles without being stung to bits?

The easiest way is to wear rubber gloves while picking and processing them. Or, grab the nettle with care and determination while avoiding accidental brushing. It does require some practice, but it works. Grabbing them hard crushes the needle points.

But most foragers have gotten used to a little stinging here and there. While at first, it can be annoying, once the burning sensation starts to subside the affected parts seem to become more sensitive to subtle energies. Dowsers sometimes use nettles to increase the sensitivity in their hands. I always pick my nettles with bare hands and I quite like the tingling and the way it makes my hands more sensitive to the plants and the soil that I am working with. However, people who are prone to allergies should be careful and avoid direct exposure since the ‘venom’ also contains histamine, which can cause an allergic reaction.

Caution: Nettles intended for internal use (as food or medicine) should only be picked in spring,  (or, after the first cutting) as later in the year they start to accumulate an abundance of little crystals (called ‘cystoliths’), which can be irritating to the digestive organs and the kidneys.

Once the nettles are brought home and cleaned under running water they can be put in a bowl and covered with hot water for about twenty minutes. This greatly reduces its stinging potential.

Recipes

In the 17th century, nettle pudding (not the sweet sort), nettle porridge and nettle soup were all common:

Nettle Pudding:

  • 500 g fresh nettles
  • 100 g butter
  • 4 egg separated
  • 2 cups bread crumbs

Wash 1 lb of nettle leaves pour boiling water over the nettles. Cream 100 g of butter with a little salt and pepper, 4 egg yolks, one onion cut fine and two cups of breadcrumbs. Add the nettles to this creamy mass. Beat the egg whites until stiff and carefully fold them into the doughy nettle mass. Pour into a buttered dish and cook in a double boiler for one hour.

Scottish Nettle Pudding

1-gallon young nettle tops

2 leeks

2 heads of broccoli

500 g rice

salt and pepper to taste

To 1 gallon of young Nettle tops, thoroughly washed, add 2 good-sized leeks or onions, 2 heads of broccoli, or small cabbage, or Brussels sprouts, and 1/4 lb. of rice. Clean the vegetables well; chop the broccoli and leeks and mix with the Nettles. Place all together in a muslin bag, alternately with the rice, and tie together tightly. Boil in salted water, long enough to cook the vegetables, the time varying according to the tenderness or otherwise of the greens. Serve with gravy or melted butter. These quantities are sufficient for six persons.

from ‘Mrs Grieves, A Modern Herbal’

Country people would also make nettle beer, which was not only quite tasty and refreshing but also wholesome as a remedy for arthritic and gouty pains.

“…a pleasant country drink made of nettle-tops, dandelions, goosegrass, and ginger, boiled and strained. Brown sugar was added, and while still warm a slice of toasted bread, spread with yeast, was placed on top, and the whole kept warm for six or seven hours. Finally, the scum was removed, a teaspoon of cream of tartar was added and the beer was bottled.”

Lesley Gordon, A Country Herbal

Nettle Beer

The Nettle Beer made by cottagers is often given to their old folk as a remedy for gouty and rheumatic pains, but apart from this purpose, it forms a pleasant drink. It may be made as follows: Take 2 gallons of cold water and a good pailful of washed young Nettle tops, add 3 or 4 large handfuls of Dandelion, the same of Clivers (Goosegrass) and 2 OZ. of bruised, whole ginger. Boil gently for 40 minutes, then strain and stir in 2 teacupsful of brown sugar. When lukewarm place on the top a slice of toasted bread, spread with 1 OZ. of compressed yeast, stirred till liquid with a teaspoonful of sugar. Keep it fairly warm for 6 or 7 hours, then remove the scum and stir in a tablespoonful of cream of tartar. Bottle and tie the corks securely. The result is a specially wholesome sort of ginger beer. The juice of 2 lemons may be substituted for the Dandelion and Clivers. Other herbs are often added to Nettles in the making of Herb Beer, such as Burdock, Meadowsweet, Avens Horehound, the combination making a refreshing summer drink.

Mrs. Grieves, A Modern Herbal 

Nettle Hair Rinse and Conditioner

Take a big handful of nettles and cover with cold water. Bring to the boil, cover and simmer for 15 minutes. Strain and allow to cool. Bottle and keep the liquid in a cool place (e.g. in the fridge). Use this liquid as a final rinse after washing your hair. Don’t wash it out, but rather comb it out once the hair is dry.

Nettle is a very fibrous plant. Not too long ago it was actually planted as a fiber crop for making textiles, rope, and paper. The fibers must be separated and softened so they can be spun into yarn and woven into any kind of cloth. Nettle textiles are superior even to those made of hemp or flax. Nettles fibers are stronger than those of flax, yet they are not as harsh as hemp.

Some people claim that nettles act as an aphrodisiac and ‘aid the venery’. For this use, the seeds are especially in demand.

Further Resources

Foraging Ramsons

Foraging Ramsons

Foraging Wild Garlic (Allium ursinum)

The birds have been singing on the top of their lungs, announcing that finally and irrevocably spring is here at last. It came in with a blast of flowers that seemed to be popping up all at once, and now there is a veritable flood of petals both on the ground and in the trees. It is a lush and exuberant time – sheer bliss for any and all nature spirits. And it is incredibly hard to stay put, in front of a screen.

If you have been out there enjoying this blooming bliss, you might have noticed that in some parts of the woods there is a strong whiff of garlic lingering among the trees. You probably will have smelled it long before you discovered its likely source – a small but prolific plant, with broad leaves and a single flower stalk that rises from the centre and explodes into a white globe of star-like, little white flowers. You have discovered Ramsons (Allium ursinum), also known as ‘wild garlic’. This is one of my favourite spring edibles – prolific, tasty, versatile and very healthy.

All parts of this plant are edible, but I usually only gather the leaves, in order to safeguard the wild stands of this herbal treasure. I also don’t take the whole plant, but only some, preferably young leaves from each.

The medicinal value of wild garlic is similar to that of cultivated garlic. It is rich in vitamin C and iron and makes a great blood cleansing herb. Ramsons have a long history as a vitalising tonic spring herb. It can help alleviate arteriosclerosis and reduce high blood pressure. However, be aware that large quantities can have a drastic effect on the digestive system. Ramsons are no longer used medicinally, but if you let food be your medicines, as Hippocrates recommends, then make ample use of wild garlic as a great spring tonic.

CAUTION:

Be careful to wash the leaves very well. Growing so close to the ground and often near a stream, the ramsons can be contaminated the eggs of the fox tapeworm, which can be very harmful (even fatal) in humans. Fox tapeworm lodges in the liver or lungs, but can reside there undetected for years. Foragers can get regular check-ups for this infection. Although blood tests are not 100% accurate they may give some indication. If detected early the worm can be treated/operated upon successfully, but if left too late, it can destroy the liver. This safety warning applies to all herbs, berries and mushrooms that grow close to the ground, which exposes them more easily the faeces of an infected fox. The eggs are pretty durable in cool, damp conditions, but sensitive to heat and drying.

Note:

During the last decade, researchers have made some important new discoveries regarding drugs for the treatment of ‘alveolar echinococcosis’, the disease associated with fox tapeworm infestation. They found that some cancer drugs are quite promising as both diseases share some similarities. The treatment has become more efficient but it is not 100% perfect. Surgery remains the most effective option to date.

But I don’t want to spoil your appetite or foraging passion. Infection rates are very low, even among people who spend a lot of time in the woods and have a passion for gathering from the wild. Drying or heating destroys most organisms. Just make sure to blanch the Ramsons leaves briefly, or at least, be sure to wash them VERY WELL.

Ramsons Pesto

Recipes:

Ramsons Pesto

  • 200g Ramsons Leaves
  • 200g Basil Leaves
  • 200g finely grated Parmesan cheese
  • 150g Piñon nuts
  • Olive oil, salt to taste

Take the fresh, young Ramsons leaves and wash thoroughly. Briefly scald the Ramson leaves with boiling water. Take the same amount of fresh Basil leaves and place both in a blender. Cover with Olive oil and blend until smooth. Add 200g finely grated parmesan cheese and blend until smooth. Add some piñon nuts (or crushed walnut pieces).

This pesto is very versatile – you can stir it into freshly cooked pasta, blend with crumbly goats- or feta cheese, or, mixed with Ricotta, use as a stuffing for homemade ravioli, or blend it with cream cheese to make a tasty bread spread. I am sure you will come up with gazillion more tasty ideas!

Ramsons have a very strong flavour, which is why it might be a good idea to blend it with another herb. Basil works great, as the two complement each other well. Other herbs you can use are chickweed, dandelion leaves or lambs quarters. Sun-dried tomatoes marinated in oil also make an excellent addition to this pesto recipe.

Ramsons also complement fish dishes very well. Fish chowder with a few Ramsons leaves or bulbs thrown in is a delight. 

CAUTION:

Inexperienced foragers may confuse this plant with the poisonous Lily of the Valley, or Autumn Crocus leaves, which are also poisonous. However, Ramsons can be distinguished by the very distinctive, garlicky smell. If it doesn’t smell like garlic it is not ramsons. Once the flower head appears, there is no mistaking them. Learn how to identify them correctly before the flowers appear as that is the best time to collect them. The bulbs can be collected after flowering when the leaves have died down.

Blackberries (Rubus fruticosus)

Blackberries (Rubus fruticosus)

Autumn equinox always arrives with a shock: summer is over, winter is on the approach! How can that be? It seems only such a short while ago that we laughed and played in the summer sun! But all too soon I hear the equinox winds hurling outside my window and watch dark, ominous clouds chasing each other across the sky. I sigh. The last of the foraging days are just around the corner. From now until Samhain or All Saints Day, a flurry of activity lies ahead: I will be gathering mushrooms, berries, and nuts to fill the winter larder.

Strawberries, raspberries, red currents – berry season is already over. Almost – except for one! A sweet reminder of the summer days will take us to the threshold of winter: the lowly Blackberry (aka Bramble). How we curse it in spring and summer when we find our passage across a field blocked by its dangling thorny limbs, when its barbs tear our clothes, tangle our hair, or scratch our skin! When bramble blocks the way it means business. Although it is not impossible to overcome, most will choose an easier route than to engage in direct combat.

Yet, who can resist the sweet berries once summer is over? From the end of August to the beginning of November Bramble bestows a seemingly inexhaustible harvest. Rows of jam jars that line the larder are abundant proof.

Bramble is extremely undemanding. It pops up just about anywhere and is often cursed as a weed. But, like many other so-called weeds, it bears a precious secret.

Blackberries highly nutritious and rich in vitamins, especially Vitamin C and A, and K, as well as in minerals, especially manganese and fibre. They also contain flavonoids and tannins, which means that they are not only delicious fieldfare or raw material for jams, but can also be used medicinally.

The tannins act as an astringent. Medicinally Blackberries (as well as the Blackberry leaves, picked in spring) can be used to tighten the gums and to inhibit bleeding. It makes a good remedy for the upset tummies of small children, can arrest diarrhoea, settle a nervous stomach and even soothe a stomach-flu.

The leaves can be brewed like tea. Sometimes they are mixed with raspberry and strawberry leaves to make a refreshing general-purpose household tea. Their diuretic and diaphoretic properties useful in a blood cleansing tea and help to reduce a fever.

Extremely valuable is their ability to lower blood sugar levels, which would commend them to diabetics as an alternative to regular tea or coffee. The leaves are also astringent and can be used as a gargle to soothe a sore throat. The berries or their juice are beneficial for treating hoarseness. Singers and speakers should make ample use of this freely available and effective remedy.

On a more spiritual note, the lowly Blackberry flower has an honoured place among Dr. Bach’s flower essences. He saw it as a remedy for confusion. Bramble essence is said to help one realise the ‘essential truth’ or underlying pattern of a situation and is thought to assist in finding solutions to a problem, bring about mental clarity, and to aid concentration and memory.

Recipes

 

As blackberries are so commonly found in the hedgerows there are a plethora of recipes for cordials, jams, jellies, ice cream, mousse, pies, chutneys, and tons more. I prefer the fresh berries straight off the vine with just a little cream, but here are another couple of favourites: 

Apple and Blackberry Crumble:

Filling

  • 3 Large cooking apples
  • 1lb Blackberries
  • 5oz Sugar or Honey
  • Cinnamon
  • Lemon
  • ½ oz Butter

Crust

  • 2 oz Butter
  • 2 oz Rolled oats
  • 2 oz Flour
  • 1 oz Walnuts (crushed)
  • 1 oz Sugar or Honey
  • Preheat the oven to 200C/400F

Peel and cut the apples into small chunks. Melt the butter and stir in the sugar and cinnamon. Cook until it carmelises, stirring frequently. After about 5 min add the apple pieces, lemon, and walnuts. Cook until the apples are getting soft.

Prepare the crumble topping by rubbing the softened butter, sugar, flour, and oats into a crumbly mixture.

Take the apples off the heat and add the blackberries. Stir in gently. Transfer the filling into a shallow ovenproof casserole and sprinkle the crumble topping on top. Bake for about 20 minutes at about 180°C or 350°F until the topping turns a light golden brown.

Serve with vanilla ice cream.

Blackberry Cornbread

2 cups white cornmeal

¼ tsp. soda

¼ tsp. salt

1 cup buttermilk

1 egg

1 cup maple syrup

1 ½ cup blackberries

Mix cornmeal, soda, salt, buttermilk, egg in a medium-sized mixing bowl; stir well. Add maple syrup, stir well. Add blackberries, stir into the mixture without mashing them. Pour into a well-greased iron skillet and bake slowly at 350°F/180°C until top begins to brown. Reduce heat to 200°F/100°C until cooked.

Acorns

Acorns

I don’t know why I have been ignoring acorns all this time. But this year, out of nowhere, it suddenly struck me that I should give them a try. Oaks are quite plentiful in my region and thus acorns are not in short supply. And so, I unexpectedly found myself filling my pockets with acorns a couple of weeks ago. Acorns actually make for easy foraging – they are plentiful, not prickly and big enough to fill bags without too much effort.

But before you start picking, it may be worth your while to acquaint yourself with the different species that grow in your area. Different species are often found in the same habitat. Oaks (and acorns) come in many different varieties, shapes, and sizes but not all are terribly tasty, (in fact, some taste terrible).

Acorns are rich in tannins, a bitter, acrid substance that was once used for tanning animal hides. Tannins are very astringent and in large amounts, they are toxic to the kidneys, liver, and the entire digestive tract. They also interfere with iron absorption. This is why foragers prefer to search out varieties that are a bit sweeter and lack high levels of tannin. Fortunately, in most parts of Europe, the species that has the lowest tannin concentration is also one of the most common. In the US there is a wide variety of species and all of them, even the bitterest have been used for food.

In the eastern United States, Quercus alba, or common white oak, was generally considered the preferred species to gather, since it is naturally quite sweet. In the Southwest, gamble oak was used, although the acorns are not big. But, just about every kind of acorn has been utilized for food – bitter or not. To make the bitter varieties more palatable, the tannins must be removed. Native people have been very innovative in finding ways to accomplish this task. They used many different methods to render acorns more palatable and to preserve them for later use.

Some indigenous peoples stored the nuts in underground vaults that they would dig near a river. Stored in such vaults the nuts turned completely black but could be kept fresh for years (unless the squirrels should find them). But a more common method is to thoroughly dry or roast the nuts and to store them in jars for later use.

The dried nuts can then be ground into flour as needed. The flour is placed into a finely woven cloth and carefully rinsed to remove the tannins until the water runs clear. Any flour that is not used immediately must be thoroughly dried (e.g. at low temperature in the oven) to prevent it from getting moldy. The flour will ‘cake up’ and must be ground again before use.

Alternatively, you can boil the acorns in several changes of water and then dry them. Gentle roasting will dry them completely. Once thoroughly dry, they can be ground.

acorn biscuits

Acorn biscuits 

Acorns are very nutritious. They contain not only fat and carbohydrates but are also rich in proteins and B vitamins.

 

There are a surprising number of recipes out there for making acorn goodies – acorn grits, cakes, bread, and soup. Coarsely ground acorns (grits) can be used to replace nuts in many recipes, although they may add rather a lot of crunch. Acorn flour can be used to replace a portion of regular flour in just about any recipe. Mix flours in a ratio of 1:1 or 1:3, depending on how nutty a flavour you want to achieve. Experiment to create your own favourite recipes.

My experiment was based on a savoury biscuit recipe that normally calls for cashews. These crackers came out great, except that I should have ground the flour much finer. I used grits, but they turned quite crunchy in the oven. Still, on the whole, they were quite tasty.

Savoury Acorn Biscuits:

Ingredients:

  • 150g Acorn flour
  • 150g wholemeal flour
  • 100g cold butter
  • 1 tsp. curry powder
  • pinch of salt
  • 1 tbs. creme fraiche
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 2 – 3 tbs ground parmesan cheese

Place the flours into a bowl. Add the cold butter, in small chunks, and add the curry powder and salt. Add 1 egg yolk and the creme fraiche. Blend all ingredients to create a smooth shortcrust dough. Cover and put into the fridge for 1 hour.

Line a cookie sheet with baking paper and preheat the oven to 200°C (392°F).

Divide dough into two parts and roll out thinly (to approx 3 millimetres) between two layers of cling film.

Cut 4cm cookies (e.g. with a water glass) and transfer to cookie sheet.

Mix second egg yolk with 2 spoons of water and glaze each cookie

Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese

Bake on the middle rack for 15 min until golden brown.

 

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