Stinging Nettles

As I write this, I’m experiencing two souvenirs of today’s adventure on Sauvie Island, just Northwest of Portland on the Columbia — a cup of nettle tea, and tingling hands.

We spent the afternoon searching for and picking stinging nettles, which are not too pleasant if you rub them the wrong way, but have a pleasant taste and a variety of healthy qualities when cooked or made into tea. We wandered down a trail that ran along the Columbia, and found some along the trail here and there, before settling on a huge patch that we worked for a little bit before heading home.

This is a good time of year for nettles, because they’re coming out (and have been for the past six weeks or so, I think), but haven’t flowered yet. I didn’t quite follow what my well-informed friend said, but for some chemical reason, it’s best not to eat them after they’ve flowered. I spotted a few that were starting to flower, so I should remember that nettles are best picked in early March to be safe.

So what does a nettle look like and how do you pick one? Well, this is what a nettle looks like. The two at the top are what they look like normally. And see how the one at the bottom is missing its small top leaves? That’s because I picked them.

Nettles, Picked and Unpicked

You only pick the top of the plant so that it can grow back, and also so that you only get the tenderest and tastiest leaves. I brought gloves with me, but didn’t end up using them once a friend showed me a trick. The tops of the leaves won’t sting you — only the bottoms and the stalk. So I started using the leaves to grab the stalk and pluck my nettles, like so.

Barehanded!

Was this a totally sting free method? No — I was stung a bunch while reaching for the leaves, stung through the leaves, etc. And four hours later, my hands still have pins and needles going on. [Update: 24 hours later, the last of the pins and needles are fading.] One of my companions really hates the sting, so she wore gloves the whole time, but I think I would do it this way again. Being stung doesn’t do you any harm (it’s even a folk remedy for arthritis) and I liked what another companion pointed out — since we’re harvesting from a natural environment, we can only take so much while taking care of the forest, and when your hands hurt too much to pick more, you’ve probably got enough.

Bag o' Nettles

If you’ve been following this blog long enough you know how crazy I go with picking fruit, but this foraging experience was a little bit different. Since we were taking the nettles from a functioning ecosystem, not a nettle orchard, picking every last one, like I would do with apples on a tree, was the last thing we wanted to do. Since we knew we were going to take only a tiny fraction of what we found, it was sort of fun to carefully select the ones that I did pick, and  then pluck each one deliberately to minimize the stinging. It was a very slow and pleasant thing.

I had a nice afternoon, and this tea is tasty. I’ll have the rest of the nettles in a few days with dinner — I’ll blanch them in boiling water to take the sting out and then have them with salt, pepper, and a little butter. And I’ll definitely do this again next year.

Oh, but needless to say, I would never encourage you to do something like this. Eating wild plants is dangerous, even if you’re accompanied by knowledgeable people you trust, as I was today, because you could get it wrong and eat something poisonous. Stay home, be safe, don’t take anything in this post as any sort of advice or instruction on an inherently hazardous activity.

(That way, there will be more nettles for me.)

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