Tag Archive: spring

It’s not exactly nettle time yet.  Spring felt so early (two weeks ago. Now we’re back in deep freeze, yuck!) this year, I feel like I should be out harvesting already, but the nettles I have seen are up only a few inches and that seems a little too labour intensive to make it worth my time and bring back some bags full of prickly goodness. You could certainly harvest when they first emerge, they’re really at their best when small and young, but I want to collect quite a bit so I wait until they’re more like 6 inches high with a few more leaves.

Almost everyone knows how stinging nettle feels from accidental contact.  It’s not evil, it’s just protecting it’s incredibly nutritious self.  It’s high in protein, has a flavour similar to spinach, (and yes, that’s a bit like saying any new white meat ‘tastes like chicken’ 😉  it is rich in vitamins A, K and C, iron, potassium, manganese, and calcium.  If it were not covered in this effective defense system, herbivores would mow it to the ground for the food value, and it would not survive!

Stinging Nettle Urtica dioica. Wikipedia commons

Why does it sting? Stinging nettles are covered with countless tiny hollow hairs called trichomes. When something brushes against these hairs, their very fragile silica tips break off, and the remainder of the hair can then act like a needle. It pierces the skin, and releases a cocktail of various chemicals from the base of the hair, and it’s these that cause the sting. Not all compounds have been identified, but it definitely contains histamine, acetylcholine, and serotonin. Serotonin does not only make you happy. When injected by the stinging nettle it functions as an irritant, leading to pain. Acetylcholine is another neurotransmitter that also hurts when it comes in the form of nettles, and histamine we know well from allergic reactions, although it too has multiple functions in the body. Oxalic and tataric acid may also be responsible for the persistence of pain, although the study that showed this to be true was actually on Urtica thunbergiana, not U. dioica. Moroidin, leukotriene C4 and leukotriene B4 may also be found in nettle stings. How badly it stings is going to vary from place to place and season to season, full sun to shade.  Nettles quite likely have the ability to modulate what kind and how much of these substances they contain depending on the risk of being eaten.

Plantago major. Photo by Rasbak

What helps the sting?  If you get stung, first try not to scratch or rub it.  I know, ow, but you’ll only make it worse. Wash off the area, preferably with soap, to remove the hairs and chemicals responsible for the sting. You can use a piece of duct tape to pull out any remaining hairs. You can try chewing up a plantain leaf, Plantago major (which is usually pretty close by) and putting it on the sting.  This generally helps me right away.  Same goes for crushed jewelweed. (Impatiens noli tangere) I’ve seen dock recommended in a ton of places, but in my personal experience it doesn’t work very well. Maybe I have the wrong Rumex? Baking soda made into a paste helps soothe the area. Calamine does help, antihistamine cream, and aloe gel may all help with the persistent sting and redness.  Keep it cool, possibly with an ice pack.  Heat will make the reaction worse. No hot showers while it’s still hurting.

Getting Some Nettle. In general, ground that doesn’t run out of water seasonally, good, slightly acid soil, and the border between woods and fields is ideal nettle hunting country. Nettles love a dark, fertile loam and can be great indicators of areas where the soil is rich, maybe with old deposits of manure, deep leaf litter in fall, or old garden plots. Nettles like growing above ditches and streams, too. Just maybe avoid the ditch by the roadside.  Ick.

Harvesting Roots. Even if it’s a touch early to harvest the top parts of the plant now, it IS a great time to harvest the roots. I like harvesting roots while plants are at least semi dormant, and at least with a tiny frill of new leaves on top, you can tell where they are. Dig outside the foliage area and under the plant at least a foot to get the roots without damaging them. Also, don’t be an ass.  Ideally, a forager should be able to collect without damaging the patch or even making it obvious that you’ve been there.  Don’t take more than a quarter of any patch, space out your digs, fill in your holes and replace the duff. A casual hiker-by should not be able to tell what you’ve done.

Once you have your roots, thoroughly clean them in fresh water.  I do this in the sink with a drain sieve in because you’re going to have to scrub a fair bit to get every last bit of dirt off. Chop the roots into small pieces to use. The smaller the size, the easier it is to get everything out of them if you’re going to make tea or tincture. If you’re planning on freezing the root to preserve it you can leave it as whole as possible to keep it from losing vit. C and oxidizing. (drying is good too, the mineral content won’t degrade but freezing preserves the root in as fresh a state as possible with vitamins intact.)

Harvesting Aerial Parts. There’s a number of hacks to avoid getting stung.  #1 would be wearing gloves, of course, but if you’re like me you don’t remember to bring gloves when the mood strikes to jump out of the car and start bagging some handy herb. Very young nettles sometimes don’t sting- so now, when they’re 2-3 inches tall and just emerging, is the least annoying time to harvest.  However, the intensity of sting seems to vary WIDELY depending on where you are in the country or even in the same woods, so don’t depend on that.  If you’re near a stream, there may be clay around.  You can coat your hands in clay before picking, and it does help a lot. You can use big leaves to protect your hands but that’s very fussy and not great for a lot of picking. Knowing how to handle the nettle helps, if you’re careful.  Nettle hairs on the stem usually have a direction to them, so take a peek first. You can pick with bare hands if the only pressure is in the same direction as the hairs, pressing the hairs against the stem.  It’s tricky, but possible. My preferred method is a snip and flick one. I use scissors or pruners (whatever’s in my pocket) to snip off stems, pick the nettle up with the scissors, and flick it into the bag. Easy!

Photo by me -Leila Bee

Preserving the harvest.  You can dry nettles to preserve them for later, and I do- dry stuff packs down and stores so nicely! Dried, powdered nettle is great for adding to smoothies or stew. If you want the fullest range of benefits preserved, I would freeze it. Chop to get rid of stems, and blanch quickly (60-90 seconds) in hot water, put into a cold water bath to stop further cooking, then drain or squeeze out the excess water to freeze.  Chopping them up first means you get more in a bag. You can also make nettle pesto, and freeze it in ice cube trays which can be eaten as is or thrown into other recipes for a nutritional boost. Freeze drying is the ultimate method of preservation, but that either requires a fair bit of time or special equipment.

Mondo Medicinal Value

Nettle is a BIG subject with a long, long history of use, widespread distribution,  and has actually been studied extensively with hundreds of clinical trials to back up it’s numerous nutritional and medicinal benefits.  I’m going to try my best to put as many as I can here, so bear with me. It might get long. I’ll try not to be too dry.

I’ve heard nettles called both a man’s herb, and a women’s tonic.  It’s both and neither.  Nettle has clear benefits for hormone related conditions no matter which tackle you are packing, and plenty of nutrition for anybody.

Prostate Health. Nettle root can be used to treat benign prostatic hyperplasia, also known as an enlarged prostate, nettle root may provide relief from symptoms of this condition, particularly when taken in tandem with other medicinal herbs, such as saw palmetto. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, nettle root can help reduce the urge to urinate constantly, as well as reduce the amount of urine and dripping post-urination. But nettle root does not, unlike other medications, reduce the size of the prostate; it only provides some relief from the symptoms.  It also seems that when stinging nettle (along with other supplements) is combined with antibiotics to treat chronic bacterial prostatitis that the elimination of symptoms and long-term outcome is better than taking just an antibiotic alone. Nettle also has beneficial effects on androgenic alopecia (male pattern baldness).  So if your hair’s thinning, you may want to think about trying nettle root.

Side note- if you use pine pollen as a testosterone booster, combining it with nettle will compound the effects.

Menstruation, PCOS.  Taking nettle leaf as a vegetable or tea can reduce a heavy period to a more normal one and help prevent anemia with a large dose of iron that’s easily assimilated. Sufferers of PCOS (Poly Cystic Ovary Syndrome) may be able to use nettle root to assuage symptoms. There are several natural substances that bind to and stimulate sex hormone binding globulin (SHBG), which then binds some of the testosterone in our blood stream, which in turn reduces the hyperandrogenism of PCOS. The root of the nettles plant contains many lignans and these compounds have an affinity to SHBG in humans. Nettles root can also affect aromatase inhibition which could inhibit the conversion of the weaker testosterone to dihydrotestosterone.

I can’t find a definite yay or nay on whether it’s good for pregnancy or not.  Some sources say yes, some no, because it does have an effect on hormones but is highly nutritious and has many benefits for someone with a higher demand on vitamins and minerals. (Personally I’d say it’s a good thing, but I’d ask your doctor, I’m no expert on pregnancy.) After the kid’s out though, definitely eat those nettles, as they aid in milk production in lactating mothers. They also help with a bunch of postpartum problems like bleeding, general nutrition and UTI’s.

Hemostatic. Due to the large amount of vit. K in nettles, which is required for regular clotting, it’s great for treating bleeding (It’s not a first aid measure though). Midwives often use it for spotting during pregnancy, it can regulate periods that are too heavy, counteracting persistent bleeding during menopause, and other types of excessive bleeding.  That being said- if you don’t know why you’re bleeding see your doctor, don’t just drink tea and hope for the best!

Allergies. Interesting that something containing histamine will help arrest or reduce allergic reactions, but it certainly does! A 2009 study also showed that nettle inhibited proinflammatory pathways related to allergic rhinitis by antagonizing histamine 1 receptor, inhibiting prostaglandin (PG) formation and inhibiting degranulation. This is great news for people who experience seasonal allergies, or who have histamine sensitivity. Works best for seasonal allergies if you start taking nettles before the known triggers start so the body is already less reactive to histamines by the time the pollen starts to fly. It will still help after, but proactive use gets better results.

UTI’s, Kidney Stones. Nettle is sometimes used to treat urinary tract infections (including chronic ones), cystitis, kidney stones and other kidney troubles.  It is diuretic, so yes, you will pee a bit extra if you’re taking nettle.  One note of caution if you’re using it to treat bladder or kidney problems, you have to do the harvest before it goes into flower. Calcium oxalate crystals form on the leaves after flowering and these will have the opposite effect, irritating the bladder and kidneys.  So spring collection only, for that!

Arthritis. Nettle can be used to treat pain in the muscles and joints. For the last 2000 years at least, people simply stung themselves with a handful of the aerial parts, which would certainly result in irritation and pain, but afterward reduces swelling and pain from the arthritis.  Now it could be that this is due to nerve distraction effect like capcaisin, but more likely the sting injects a histaminic substance and the body mounts an antihistaminic reaction, some of which goes to the sting, some to the other inflammation. We’re still not sure exactly how it works.  Nettle is most commonly used to treat osteoarthritis. A 2013 issue of “Phytomedicine” found that stinging nettle, including the root, when extracted into an oil-based solution, helped reduce inflammation. So even topically in salve, nettle could be of use! Great potential was indicated, but further study is still required. As usual, right?

Gout. Nettle lowers the concentration of uric acid in the blood, so is also helpful for gout.  It may help in the case of many types of joint pain by promoting the elimination of uric acid from joints with a gentle, alkalizing diuretic activity. Again, you want to harvest the pre flowering top parts to avoid calcium oxalate crystals.

Cautions. In addition to possible side effects, stinging nettle, as a supplement and as a foodstuff, may cause adverse side effects with certain medicines. If you are taking blood thinners or high blood pressure medication, be aware that stinging nettle can affect your blood’s clotting ability, as well as potentially lower your blood pressure, reducing and enhancing the effects of these medications respectively. Nettle may also increase the effects of diabetes drugs, diuretics and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications. Stinging nettle may make it harder for your body to rid itself of lithium as a result of its diuretic effect.

Young nettles with purple tints- photo Leila Bee

‘Let Food be thy Medicine’…. Eat them because they taste GOOD. Aside from all the carrying on about how great they are for you, nettles are simply a tasty spring green.  Sometimes I’ll just eat a steamed bowl of nettles with butter on it and nothing else. Nomnomnom. They’re a bit spinachy, but nettles have their own flavour and you’ll just have to try them and see. This is one time that taking your medicine will taste just fine. There’s a ton of recipes out there, but you can basically use them in anything you’d use a hearty green leafy thing in. Here’s a bunch of recipes to start with.

But Wait, There’s MORE!

Cordage and Fibres for Weaving. So far it’s been all about the spring harvest.  When it comes to using them for the fibre, you actually want to wait until late summer or early fall, when the stems are at their tallest and stretchiest, because if you want to use them for weaving or cordage you want the longest strands you can get. Small tip- shade grown nettles are taller, sun grown have stronger fibres. rather than put the whole process in this post, I’m going to give you a link to a step by step instruction with pictures here.

Dye. Nettles make a good dye, and although the colour is fairly muted it’s also surprisingly lightfast for a vegetable dye. You’re not going to get an emerald green, although a little copper in the dye bath will turn up the green a bit. Here’s a good tutorial on nettle dye.

Animal Fodder. Although they won’t generally touch it in the field, farm animals who like vegetative matter quite enjoy nettles once dried, blanched, or baled into hay.  It’s as good for them as it is for us, so if you’re at all concerned that your animals aren’t getting enough nutrition, try adding dried nettles to their feed. The abundant carotenoids give egg yolks a punch of colour, so try adding some nettle to the chicken feed in the cold months when there’s not a lot of fresh green around. Enhancing milk production works for goats, sheep and cows as it does for us, so nettles for your livestock is a great addition during baby season.

Compost. Nettles are an excellent compost accelerator, especially if you’re a little heavy on the carbon in your heap. If your heap is a little sluggish, try turning the layers over with a few armfuls of nettle. Stems are fine, although chopping everything a bit helps speed up decomposition.  No roots, unless you want a nettle forest!

Biodynamic prep #504 is made with nettle. Steiner said that using the compost prep nettle is “like an infusion of intelligence for the soil” (Agriculture, 100) For this prep, collect nettles before flowering, dry them, and bury them stuffed into clay pots or wooden boxes laid mouth to mouth in the soil, in fall. They’re supposed to stay there for a full year.   (note- I like a lot of things about biodynamic farming, and I’ve seen things work when I can’t really quantify WHY, but I’m very attached to being able to prove results and reason out how they work, so I’m a little reticent to start talking about enhancing the ‘intelligence of the soil’.)

Fermented Nettle for Liquid Feed: This is more like a Korean Natural Farming technique, but Victorians used it in steam heated glasshouses too.  It works.  It stinks, but it WORKS. Make some fermented nettle liquid fertilizer by filling a large jar or bucket with the leaves and stems, bruising the foliage first. Weight down the nettles with a rock or whatever you have laying around and then cover with water. Only fill three-quarters of the bucket with water to allow room for the foam that will be created during the brewing process. Use non-chlorinated water, possibly from a rain barrel, and set the bucket somewhere you won’t smell it. Leave the mix for one to three weeks to ferment, stirring every couple of days until it stops bubbling. Finally, strain out the nettles and dilute the concoction at one part fertilizer to 10 parts water for watering plants or 1:20 for direct foliar application. Use leftovers in compost, or keep the bucket going now that you have a fermentation ‘mother’ by adding new bruised plant material and water.

Butterflies! Nettles are essential food for a few types of butterflies, as the sting keeps grazing animals off the plants and the caterpillars safe until they pupate. If you like Peacock, Red Admiral, Painted Lady, Small Tortoiseshell or Comma butterflies, don’t take down that patch on your property.

That’s…not even everything, I’m sure.  Whew.

After all this delving I’ll be sure to be on top of my nettle harvest this year.  With all these benefits, I really don’t want to run out again. (Shakes last bag with a handful of sad dried leaves in it.)

Happy Harvesting!



Columbine with bumblebee


The plant that earns first post in May is the humble Columbine, or if you want to be elitist and speak a little Latin, Aquilegia.  Most of the varieties available to purchase in nurseries or as seed are hybrids, but there are species Aquilegias available in some nurseries.  Chances are, you have some growing wild in your region since they are widespread in meadows, forest edges, clearings and higher elevations in the Northern hemisphere.  The Pacific Northwest’s native columbine is Aquilegia formosa, a handsome red and yellow specimen that seems to favour seeping rock walls and vernally moist areas with sharp drainage.

Columbines come in every colour you could desire except true blue- but I think the deep royal purples and almost-blue lilac shades make up for it.  Heights range from short dwarves about 6 inches tall, to giants that reach 4 ft. in good soil with the blossoms tinkling high in the air like coloured bells.  Flowers come in singles, doubles, and even more full blooms. ( No class for triples plus, but columbines have them!)  Plants can be grown easily from seed, but there’s a catch: it takes two years to get a bloom from seed.  The first year you only have foliage.  Once you have them blooming, however, it’s easy to spread the shiny black seed around from the dried capsules and thus be assured of continuous annual flowering.  Columbines are perennial and bloom for several years, but they are short lived and generally last around 5 years, depending on conditions. Columbines hybridize easily, so if you have more than one colour in the garden, the ones that come from seed will be a surprise! They do self-seed, but are easy to uproot and the leaf is fairly distinctive when you are weeding.

As if you needed more reasons to have columbines in the garden, they are great weed suppressors when not in bloom.  The slightly glaucus, shapely foliage heavily shades out plants beneath.  They act like a living mulch in drier areas, shading and cooling the soil. Columbines can be very adaptable, growing in poor soils, shady areas and other tricky spots. Hybrids tend to be more adaptable than species columbines, and plants grown from seed will ‘take’ better in difficult areas.  Another advantage is it’s cold hardiness-most varieties are extremely hardy, some to zone 3.  Bees love columbines!  It’s an excellent flower if you enjoy bees or want to attract pollinators, bumblebees seem to particularly enjoy them.  The best colours to attract them are deep purples, blue and bright yellows.  Hummingbirds will often favor the red and yellow varieties, especially the tall ones. (Plant our native Aquilegia formosa for a super hummingbird treat!) Columbines make excellent cut flowers, too, so grow a few for the cutting garden at least. In a cool place with plenty of water (they suck it up fast!) they can last up to two weeks.

Columbines have been a notable flower for millennia, and have mention in many stories and myths in many cultural traditions. The name columbine comes from the Latin columba for dove, for the blossom was thought to resemble a flock of doves facing inward, and in later centuries the flower came to represent the holy dove of the Christian church. The Latin name Aquilegia comes from another bird, aquila, the eagle, from the resemblance of the spurs to a hooked beak. In the Victorian language of flowers, the columbine represented primarily ‘desertion’ or ‘folly’, with a purple columbine meaning ‘resolved to win’ and red meaning ‘anxious’.  Somehow, a far cry from the image of a gentle dove, isn’t it?  Such a complex and lovely flower cannot help but be the subject of tales of fairies, gods and spirits, I think.  Other fanciful common names include Granny’s Bonnet and  European Crowfoot.

Aquilegia contains toxic alkaloids, some species more than others, particularly in the seed and root, but the extreme bitterness of toxic portions generally prevents accidental poisonings.  The flowers are edible and can be used in salads (I pull off the spurs and discard the hard core with stamens)- I have done this myself and suffered no ill effects, though some websites will say never eat the plant just to be safe.  Of course, never eat any flower that has been sprayed.  The nicest bit is the little bulb at the end of the spurs that contains the nectar- I was introduced to this as a child and plucked more than my share of flower heads just to nibble off the little honeyed drops contained within.

Aquilegia, like all garden ornamentals, sometimes is ‘in’ and sometimes hard to find in sufficient variety.  Virtually any colour or shape can be ordered online by seed if you’re hankering for something special.  Also check in the spring bulbs section of your local nursery (Feb-May), they often have it packaged in bags of dry peat, bare-root. It will be less expensive to get a lot of flowering plants the first year than buying them when in flower, but more expensive than sowing a packet of seeds.  Of course, the cheapest option means looking around at other gardens and asking nicely if you could please have some seed when the gorgeous specimen you have your eye on finishes flowering.  Chances are, they’ll hand you a bagful of seed capsules in late summer.

Happy Planting!