Nettles are in a very small family
Nettles are in a very small family, Urticaceae, most of whose members have stings. Washington’s native nettle is Urtica dioica. Nettle leaves’ stinging is accomplished with hollow hairs, like microscopic hypodermic needles, which exude formic acid when brushed against. An irritating rash may appear on one’s skin, its severity depending on the sensitivity of the “victim.” Some people have red, burning sores for days. Some people say they don’t feel a thing! And some arthritis sufferers purposely subject themselves to nettle stings as a treatment for arthritic pain for days. We are told the coastal whale hunters thrashed their skins with nettles when setting out in their canoes to capture whales. It is assumed this was to help them stay awake on long voyages, but there may be other explanations.
Net and nettles
Net and nettles come from the same root word, nettles providing the cording used to make fish nets, snares, and traps. The long fibers in these plants’ 6-8’ stems make excellent cords, either twisted or braided. The stems are harvested in late summer to early fall and flattened and peeled to reveal the inner fibers. The Pacific Northwest’s First Nations had their favorite gathering spots for nettles, as some patches produce strong, tall stalks, and other patches small, weak stalks.
We take nettles for granted
We take nettles for granted, but they¹re interesting in so many ways. Nettles bear male and female flowers, usually on different plants (thus the name dioica). It is said if one is watching in the early morning, one will see the male flowers puffing pale gold pollen into the air for the female flowers to catch. We avoid touching them for good reason and most people clearing a home or garden plot would dig them out and toss them. But in European countries they are actually cultivated in kitchen gardens for their important contribution to the family’s fresh food supply in the earliest days of spring.
To harvest nettles, wear gloves
To harvest nettles, wear gloves and gather the topmost leaf clusters by snipping them with scissors into a bag. Plop them into a pot of boiling water and when the leaves are cooked there is no longer a problem with stinging. The vegetable can be treated as spinach and was important as an antiscorbutic, enriching the blood in early spring for northern peoples. “Indian Spinach” was praised by the coastal tribes in our area, and much was made of the plants’ curative powers.
Nettles have always been eaten and drunk
Nettles have always been eaten and drunk, usually as a pot-herb and vegetable, but also as teas and tonics. Many of the elements we require in our diet are found in abundance in nettles. They exceed spinach as a source of iron and other minerals, and they are rich in vitamin C. Nettles were referred to by the early Romans, and throughout English literature there are references to the growing of the plants, as well as the benefits of the tonics and delight at the dinner table. I have a collection of recipes: Creamed Nettles, Nettle Soup, Nettle Porridge, Nettle Pudding, Nettle Wine and Nettle Beer.
But gardeners: Here’s the best part!
But gardeners: Here’s the best part! This plant is capable of influencing the welfare of other plants. Nettles stimulate the growth of plants nearby, making them more resistant to disease. The leaves and stems are the stuff to activate a compost heap, and can work wonders when laid on the soil under a covering mulch of garden clippings and straw. The nettles encourage the bacteria necessary in soil for plants to accumulate nitrogen, silica, iron, protein, phosphates, formic acid and other mineral salts that are required for the well-being of both plants and humans. A complete plant food liquid can be made by soaking a sheaf of nettles in a bucket of rainwater for two or three weeks. This amazing stuff is also effective spray against mildew, aphid, etc.
Lure the Nettle Tortoiseshell Butterfly
Lure the Nettle Tortoiseshell Butterfly to your garden. Nettles are the special food of the caterpillars of such lovely little butterflies as the Nettle (or Milbert’s) Tortoiseshells, and they are found wherever nettles grow.
How to Enjoy Your Weeds, Audrey Wynne Hatfield, Sterling Publ. Co., NY, 1971
Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast, Jim Pojar and Andy MacKinnon, Lone Pine Publishing, Vancouver BC, 1994
The Butterflies of Cascadia, Robert Michael Pyle, Seattle Audubon Society, 2002.
I first read this piece by Helen Engle on the website of the South Puget Sound Chapter of the Washington Native Plant Society. I found it so charming that I wanted to share it with more readers. Here’s what Helen wrote when I asked her permission to republish it: “I grew up during the (real) great depression (I’m 90 now) and my mom knew the plants! She fed us so many wonderful wild things! Reminds me: I need to throw a few handfuls of compost on my nettle patch, thinking of next spring!”