‘Tis the Time for Nettles!

The arch-nemesis of childhood play; urtica dioica releases its sting through sharp hollow tubes that penetrate the skin and release histamine. Most of us who had the luxury of growing up near forests and meadows know the familiar burn all too well. It’s been said that Quileute seal hunters would rub themselves with Stinging Nettle before a big hunt to keep them awake all night. Likely, the Quileutes and other Native American tribes also digested nettle under much more comfortable conditions, as cooking or drying the leaves transform the needle covered leave into a flavorful edible that offers surprisingly high amounts of iron, chlorophyll, potassium, calcium, magnesium, silicic, folic and pantothenic acids and vitamins A, B1, B2, C and K. In other words, it’s loaded with lots of goods to make your body sing.

Not surprisingly, nettle is chock-full of medicinal qualities as well and is widely used for its detoxing effects on the body. Many people drink nettle tea or take capsules to treat painful muscles and joints, even arthritis and tendonitis. Some brave souls even apply it topically like a form of primitive acupuncture, with claims of miraculous results. It’s ability to reduce the amount of histamine the body produces in response to allergens makes it a fairly effective allergy medicine without any drowsy side effects. It’s also known to be a blood builder for those with anemia. A warm cup of nettle tea can help reduce excessive mucus buildup through one of its hormonal components, secretin. Researchers have even discovered its power in aiding those with enlarged prostates (benign prostatic  hyperplasia) to the extent that most Europeans with BPH use it in their treatment procedure.

Mostly however, nettles are a great solution to getting fresh and FREE greens in those early hungry months of spring when the previous summer’s pantry goods are dwindling and the garden is still waking up. Would you rather eat spinach pre-packaged in a plastic container that has traveled further in one week than you went during last summer’s vacation or go pick your own wild version in your backyard? The gourmet choice has never been closer.

When harvesting and preparing, always wear protective clothes and gloves. The younger the nettle the better and the top shoots are the tastiest. Avoid gathering nettles that grow taller than your knees or are flowering, which occurs in late spring to early summer (the flowers will give you an unfortunate tummy ache). Grab your pruners, lob off the top part of the plant with the newest leaves, rinse clean, de-stem, and steam, blanch, sauté, add to soups and quiches, or dry for tea. It’s okay to handle without gloves once it has been soaked in water, exposed to cooking heat, or dried. Get creative by fermenting the leaves for beer or whipping up a bright and earthy pesto. Create some fun twists on the classics for a Spring Equinox dinner with these recipes shared from the kitchn.

When foraging, it is always a good idea to pick in moderation from multiple areas as to not destroy the survival of the plant, but with Nettle considered an invasive species, you have permission to go a bit crazy here. This is your true “one person’s trash is another person’s treasure” wild edible. In fact, you might even make some friends by clearing their land of this plant. Little do they know what they are missing! 

 Got lots of leftover stalks? Nettles are a great addition for your compost pile and can also be steeped into a nutritious fertilizer.

Choose to find the good in nettles this season. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed (unlesssss you forgot those gloves)!

 Happy Harvesting!

The Ph. D. nun.

Took the dogs to the vet on Orcas with Mother Hildegard. We drove the back roads that pass lakes and farmland. She slammed on her brakes every time there was an interesting bird perched on a log or fence post (avid birder). It was nice to get more of her story and to have three nervous dogs cuddled up to me.

One of MH's Portuguese Water Dogs (Koko, also known as Nunu, nonny, lulu, bebe, koksie, depending on her mood)

M. Hildegard always thought she wanted to be a children’s surgeon. In her schooling, she went the route of child psychology instead. She took her monastic vows at Regina Laudis (Our Lady of the Rock’s mother Abbey) when she was 26, but that didn’t stop her from continuing the mastery of her studies and work. She was one of the first (perhaps the first) nuns to receive a phD while living at a monastery. M. Hildegard was an early pioneer in the field of animal-assisted therapy for children. She started with a group of troubled kids, one hundred farm animals, and long car rides with the kids and a newfoundland dog in the backseat that she considered “therapy sessions.” Eventually, llamas became her primary vessels. For the last 25 years on Shaw Island, M. Hildegard ran a 4H club for children and adolescents that enabled them to work intimately with their own animal; fun and educational animal interaction with deep therapeutic power.

I think there’s a misconception with monastics that life outside of the monastery ends or is cut off when vows are taken; they are confined behind walls, recluse and isolated. On the contrary, these women are ambitious and talented intellectuals. While they believe that their daily prayers and intentions to God are their primary vocation, they are actively generous with their gifts and expertise in the society surrounding them.


MH with one of her 13 llamas, MH driving Koko in her Ford Expedition (photos from Seattle Pi) –link to one of MH’s articles for those interested in animal-assisted therapy for children