Nettles! Some folks think of them as a nuisance weed, something to avoid when you're out walking in the woods. They do pack a potent sting, but I prefer to think of nettles as early harbingers of spring and as a nourishing food and powerful medicine. This is the time of year when nettles are showing up in the woods and meadows, when people harvest their tender green leaves, before the plants flower and go to seed. Eating seasonally and locally has many health benefits, and nettles are one of the most nutritious ways to do so! It may seem hard to believe that something that can cause us so much pain can be so good for us, but nettles are a contradiction that way.
What makes nettles sting? Like other members of the Urticaceae family, nettles have hollow stinging hairs called trichomes that cover their stems as well as the undersides of their leaves. These trichomes break off upon contact with humans or animals, revealing an internal sharp point. Once this sharp point makes contact with skin, it injects a combination of chemicals subcutaneously that produce the painful sting. Luckily, when cooked or dried, nettles use their ability to sting, and what's left is nutritious, delicious, and one of humanity's oldest healing herbs.
What's so great about the stinging nettle? For one, it is an exceptionally nutritious plant. It is rich in vitamins A, C, D, K, as well as B complex vitamins, and it’s also rich in many minerals including iron, calcium, potassium, magnesium, manganese, phosphorous, iodine, sulfur, silicon and silica. For example, 10 grams of raw nettle contains 290 milligrams of calcium and 86 milligrams of magnesium whereas 10 grams of raw spinach has 10 milligrams of calcium and 8 milligrams of magnesium. Nettle is also very high in protein, more so than any other green. Medicinally, nettle has been used for everything from An added bonus: the high silica content in nettle is great for hair and skin. Historically, stinging nettle has an extraordinarily broad range of medicinal uses, including treating eczemas and skin rashes, kidney stones, lung congestion, constipation, postpartum hemorrhage, heavy periods, and even burns.
Because it is such an early spring arrival, stinging nettle was often one of the first fresh foods eaten by early peoples after a long winter. It's a great representative of the energy of Spring (and Wood, in Chinese Medicine): hardy, luxuriant, direct, and full of live-giving juiciness. Many of Portland's bigger farmer's markets will carry stinging nettle in the early spring. It's easy to find in damp places, woods and meadows near water, it also has a true propensity for growing in places that people have disturbed. If you have a good pair of gloves and are feeling feisty, there are lots of good instructions online about how to harvest and process fresh nettle yourself! If you aren't excited about stinging nettle yet, hopefully this recipe will convince you. Nettle pesto is one of my very favorite things, it's like Spring in a bottle! Enjoy in good health!
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/4 pound stinging nettles
1/4 cup fresh mint leaves
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 cup pine nuts, toasted
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/3 cup olive oil
1/4 cup firmly packed grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
Fill a large pot halfway full with water. Add 1/4 cup salt and bring to a boil.
Fill the sink or a large bowl with cold water. Using gloves or tongs, submerge the nettles in the water and let them sit for 5 minutes. Remove the nettles and discard the water. Wearing rubber gloves, pull the leaves from the stems and discard the stems.
Put the nettles in the boiling water and boil for 1 minute. Drain and spread the nettles on a baking sheet. Let cool completely. Squeeze out as much of the water as possible and coarsely chop.
Place the nettles in the bowl of a food processor with the mint, garlic, pine nuts, and 2 tablespoons of the lemon juice. Process until the mixture has formed a paste.
With the machine running, pour in the olive oil. Transfer to a bowl and fold in the cheese. Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper.