Spring Stinging Nettles
One of the many things I love about spring is that I can forage for more food. While there is wild foraging to be done in the winter, New England weather makes that a challenge. Right now, chickweed and stinging nettles are growing in my yard and I am so happy. When we allow natural plants and weeds to grow in our yards, we are providing ourselves with free food. As the temperatures begin to warm, I will speak about other wonderful, edible weeds but for now, let me introduce you to these two fabulous plants.
Chickweed (Stellaria media) is a small but mighty plant that can be found growing any time of year, even below the snow! Its leaves are teardrop or egg-shaped with a point on the tip. The leaves grow opposite each other. Chickweed likes moist conditions and will die back if it gets too dry and hot, but it comes back when conditions change to its liking. The stems have hairs growing down the stem in a single line between each segment of leaves, and it changes sides in each segment. The leaves are about ¼ to ½ inch long. The flowers are tiny and star-shaped, thus its name. Each of the five petals are deeply divided. Often you can find it growing in planters or wherever there is rich, moist soil. Chickweed can be upright or trailing in nature. It contains strong amounts of Vitamin C, as well as Ca, Fe, K, Mg, Zn, chlorophyll, protein, vitamins A and B complex. The seeds are very high in protein; very small but mighty. Due to the saponins contained in the leaves, chickweed helps to remove excess fat cells from the body. It also stimulates the lymphatic system. The lymph system helps to remove toxins and waste from the body. The best time to harvest is in the early spring or the fall. Additionally, chickweed is great for skin as it cools, soothes and tones. Eat the leaves before or during flower. To keep your chickweed lush, harvest frequently, but do give it a chance to go to seed towards fall. Chickweed is delicate so it should be eaten raw not cooked. I like to make vinegar out of it too. The recipe is at the bottom.
Urtica dioica or stinging nettles is one of my favorite plants. You’d know if you have ever encountered it, especially if you were barefoot or wearing shorts at the time. When brushed against, fine hairs along the stem and leaves release histamines into the skin causing local redness, welts and discomfort. Its leaves are opposite, oval with notches and are about 2-4 inches long. The flowers grow in branched clusters just below the leaves. Plants can grow up to 6 or more feet tall.
So why do I like it? Because nettles may be prickly on the outside but it’s beautiful and helpful on the inside. Nettles are an excellent source of calcium, magnesium, zinc, iron, potassium, chlorophyll, B-complex vitamins and more. Because of the high mineral content, nettles help to build healthy bones, hair, skin, and teeth Nettles stabilizes blood sugar, reduces fatigue, and supports the nervous and immune systems. In addition, nettles are excellent for the health of the kidney, adrenal, and thyroid systems too. The leaves can be harvested in the spring before the plant blooms. Wear rubber gloves. Put leaves in boiling water for about 2 minutes to deactivate the “sting”. To me, cooked nettles are the epitome of spring greens. Nettles can be used (once blanched) in any recipe that uses spinach or other greens. Fresh nettles can be steamed, sauted, added to soups or make into a tisane (herbal tea). Because this is such a vital and nutritious plant, it is one I always recommend to clients. The seeds are used dried or in a tincture to help with adrenal depletion. I am still exploring the seed use myself, so I will write on this more in a future blog.
How do you grow it? Well, that’s a loaded question as most people don’t want to have it around. That was a dilemma for me as I had my family and close neighbors to think about when I considered growing nettles. I would work in my yard and think; “do I or don’t I grow stinging nettles?” Finally, the plant decided for me as it showed up in my chive planter one day. I moved it to its own planter and told it that it needed to stay put so that we could stay together. That was three years ago and it has stayed put. I am grateful every time I walk past the planter that nettle chose to come into my yard.
I have a cautionary moment to share with you. There are poisonous plants that can look similar to chickweed and early nettles. It is extremely important that you really look at the plant and consult quality identification books before harvesting any plant. If you are ever unsure, it is best to NOT eat it then risk illness, or in some cases, death. Look for local herb walks to begin your learning process. Once you know that you are harvesting safe and nutritious weeds, you will be enjoying the free bounty of your yard. Happy foraging!
A bottle or jar with a lid
Organic apple cider vinegar or another good quality organic vinegar
Enough fresh, green chickweed leaves to fill 1/3 of bottle. (Please, make sure you don’t over harvest or pull out the plant when collecting. It’s better to have a little then it is to have no plants left).
Place clean, dry chickweed leaves and stems in the bottle. Tamp down but don’t mash. Add vinegar to within 1-2 inches from the top. Seal the bottle. Let mixture sit at least 2 weeks. As long as the chickweed stays below the surface of the vinegar, then plant can stay in the bottle. If not, remove and add leaves to salad. Continue to use vinegar until it is done.