Nettles! No matter the weather or date, I know that Spring has sprung when the nettles come up out of the ground. Most people cringe at the mention of nettles, but just say the word and I'll jump in my truck with kitchen gloves and plastic bags ready for harvesting.
Urticadioca is nettle's botanical name, dioica meaning "of two houses." This common species of nettles has female and male flowers on separate stems with female flowering stems rising above the males. No judgment there.
Nettles grow in rich, moist soil in the woods; along year-round desert sagebrush streams; up on the passes; in farmers' fields; down to the ocean forests. They will grow in poison runoff from newly-constructed housing developments and industry. Maybe they're even in your backyard! The key words here are wet and moist soil.
Nettles have squarish stems and opposite leaves like the plants in the mint family. They look like a giant mint plant on steroids, but are not in the mint family... just to be confusing!
Hollow hairs covering the underside of the leaves and stems of the plant and sporadically on the top of the leaves contain formic acid, causing the "sting" for which they are so famous. These hollow hairs have something like a little ball on the end (think ballpoint pen) that comes off when something brushes against it. This releases the acid on the poor hapless victim and can cause hives and discomfort for a day or two. You know you're alive when you get stung with nettle! Whoo-hoo!
Why, oh why must nettles be so prickly? Think about it. They are so valuable to animals, humans and other plants because of their nutrient content and medicine that they need some sort of protection in order to maintain their species and thrive. When God was giving out protection, they stood in line for the spiky, needly, irritating kind. So smart!
Nettles are excellent sources for ascorbic acids, choline, vitamins A and D, iron, calcium, mineral salts, vitamins and fiber. The plants are best harvested before they flower. Ingesting nettles gathered after flowering can cause uncomfortable digestive upsets (ask me how I know!).
The flowers are small, unassuming and a pale green, making them hard to find for the untrained eye. As a rule of thumb, harvest the nettles in the first 3 weeks of growth or up to a foot high. The foot-high thing is subjective as nettles in the shade will push their growth farther to reach the sun than their luckier friends in sunnier spots. I have found nettles that were a foot-and-a-half tall with no flowers because of being in the shade. It would behoove you to take a knowledgable nettle-harvester with you when you first start out, until you are more comfortable with identifying life cycle attributes.
Nettles, eaten freely and drunk as a tea will, over time, feed our adrenals and kidneys, help to heal and strengthen the lung tissue and intestines, tonify and strenghten the arteries, nourish the hair, help to promote lots of rich milk in lactating mothers. They can even help to prevent or lessen the strength of seasonal pollen-based allergy attacks. Congested? Try eating nettle pesto (recipe below) and/or drinking nettle juice and find swift relief. Nettles are anti-inflammatory and can help with many ailments where inflammation is present.
Let's talk about the adrenals for a moment. Where are they located, and what is their function? First off, the adrenals, or suprarenal, are supra (sitting above) the superior border of each kidney (renal). They lie at roughly the 12th-level rib. The adrenals produce more than 2 dozen different steroid hormones, androgens (which make sex hormones), and epinephrine. The adrenals govern our "fight or flight" response to real and imaginary stresses; provide protein, carbohydrate, water, calcium, and fat metabolism; and affects our endocrine and nervous systems, blood pressure, bone mass, and more.
Symptoms of adrenal fatigue are/can present as: low blood pressure, weight gain around the middle (waist), anxiety, fatigue, bone loss, sleep disorders, increased cortisol levels, decreased seratonin, decreased insulin sensitivity, liver issues, hypertension. Nutrients for building adrenal health include vitamin C, B5, beta-carotene, selenium, zinc.
Nettles have long been used to build adrenal strength - both the whole plant and the seeds, which are gathered in the later summer. Be aware, however, that nettle seeds are very stimulating, which can be contraindicated in fatigue situations. The last thing a fatigued organ or system needs is something pounding on it to work harder when it is already lying on the ground, panting from overuse. When dealing with adrenal fatigue with nettles, start by using the leaves/stems for a few months before introducing the seeds.
A few years back, I had a urinary tract infection that lasted only one day because I immediately drank 8 oz. of strong nettle decoction upon feeling the "burn." I made enough decoction to last a day and drank 8 oz. each hour for the first day and then just a couple of cups the next day. Nettles do not kill bacteria, but help to flush out the source of the infection from the urinary tract and out the body. Nettles act as a diuretic. This keeps the urinary tract flowing and you going!
Fresh nettle juice will aid in healing traumatized skin: gashes, slashes, cuts, and contusions. I had a rooster that wasn't doing his job well at all. Instead of protecting his girls, he would turn them against each other, and stand back when predators would come onto the homestead. Guess what happened to him? One of the girls, Miss Chicken, was plucked almost to table-ready and he put a gash in her back that was so deep and long that you could see the muscle underneath. This happened the day after a nettle harvest day with one of my apprentice groups. We had juiced some nettles and there was some in the fridge. I brought that outside, along with a paper towel and some straight lavender oil. I sat on a chair with her, soaked the paper towel with the nettle juice and put the compress on the gash. I held it there for about a half hour. Poor Miss C. just sat and rested. After a half hour, I took off the compress and drizzled some lavender essentia oil around the cut. She got a new home near the vegetable garden with one of the rabbits to keep her company. The next morning, I checked on her and the wound was completely scabbed over. 3 more days of nettle decoction compresses and lavender oil, and the wound was well on its way to healing. Only a week later there was only a scar. That is some fast healing, people!!!!
It took 4 months for the feathers to completely grow back on Miss Chicken, and after 6 months, she hopped the fence on her own (she was always able to do this, but she knew she needed the time out). Back she went in the coop with the others, healed and more confident.
Nettles juiced can be put in ice cube trays for freezing. When frozen, pop out the nettle "sickles," keep them in plastic bags or containers and back in the freezer they go until needed. Another option to preserve the juice: add vodka 20-25% by volume, so for 10 oz juice, add 2 oz vodka. The preserved juice will keep up to 6 months in the fridge.
Dry the plants for infusions later in the season. If you live in a moist area like I do in the Pacific Northwest, the nettles need to be dried in a dehydrator to dry completely to prevent molding. Oven and microwave drying? Yikes, don't even think about it. Even the lowest temperature on an oven is too high and microwaves destroy the medicine and food value in all plants. The key is to fully dry the plants as quickly as possible with the lowest temperature. 95 degrees F. is perfect. Dehydrate until the thickest part of the stem snaps when you bend it. Any flexibility means there is still moisture in the plant which will cause mold if stored at that point. Store your dried nettles in glass jars or food grade (PET) plastic containers. My home made dehydrator is 5 feet high, 4 feet wide and 4 feet deep with 7 trays made with wood frame and screening. It has a fan in the bottom and a heating coil. My nettles dry in about 2 - 2 1/2 days. I keep my herbs in 5 gallon buckets as my business demands a high volume of plants. For home use, you can find dehydrators at local feed stores, Fred Meyer type variety stores, thrift stores and yard sales. Look for ones that have a fan and temperature gauge that can be adjusted. And yes, properly dried nettles will sting, so remember to work with kitchen gloves.
Not only can you use your dried nettles for teas/infusions, think about adding dried nettles in your spaghetti sauce, soups, beans and stews for their superb mineral and vitamin content. By the by; nettles are so high in iron that eating them in quantity can cause constipation. In addition, foods high in iron and calcium need to be eaten with some sort of acid to help the body assimilate these minerals. What are acidic helpers? Any citrus, tomatoes, meat, dairy, oats, vinegar. Saute the plant up with bacon. It's the perfect food!
Blanch and freeze nettles in individual or family serving sizes for eating after the season of harvesting is over. Serve as a cooking green or add as an ingredient in casseroles. My nettle lasagne is a winner in my home. I simply add nettles in place of spinach and off it goes in the oven and off the plates at dinner time. Go back to the recipes page for instructions on how to make this delectable dish!
If you're a vinegar lover, consider making an herbal vinegar with nettles and apple cider vinegar. For information about herbal vinegars and directions on how to make them, click on the Recipes page of my website.
Nettles make a superb "compost tea" for our garden and house plants being so high in nitrogen. Simply put fresh or dried nettles in a bucket, cover with water and let it sit for 1 - 2 weeks depending on the season. The compost tea is created more quickly in hotter weather. You'll want to do this outside as it does get stinky. When it begins to bubble, it's ready for use. Strain and water your plants. They'll love you for it.
Nettle stalks may be used dried or fresh to be processed and twisted into a remarkably strong twine. The natives of the north Pacific coast used nettle twine woven into nets to catch fish.
NETTLE PESTO RECIPE
4 cups fresh nettle tops - roughly chopped
2/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
3/4 cup nuts of your choice (I used 1/2 almonds, 1/2 pecans in my last batch...yum!)
2-6 cloves garlic according to taste
1/4 cup Romano or Parmesan cheese (optional)
Put all ingredients in a food processor and process until creamy, making sure all the nettles are incorporated. That's it! What an incredible taste! Not only is it good on the traditional pasta, but the pesto makes a wonderful spread on toast or crackers. Also good as a dip. It freezes well.