Stinging nettle is a charismatic plant. While some people intently avoid it, others seek it out with passion. As noted by anthropologist Erna Gunther in 1927: “The medicinal value of this plant seems to be as great as its power of irritation.” Stinging nettle, Urtica dioica, is an herbaceous plant found growing widespread in moist lowland forests of the Pacific Northwest, including many of the urban forests of Seattle. There isn’t a consensus on whether it’s a “native” plant or “introduced”. Some people consider nettle to be an “invasive” plant, based on its sheer abundance and “nuisance” characteristics. The dispute over its status is emblematic of the love-hate relationship people have with nettle. Park managers and joggers express interest in removing the plant and mowing it down, while foragers are happy to help control its abundance through active harvesting. For foragers, nettle is one of the most prized wild greens in Seattle. Why?
Nettle is an important wild plant used for food, medicine, fiber and cordage. It’s long been an important plant for Native Coast Salish communities, and its utility is also enjoyed by diverse groups of urban residents. All parts of the plant are used: leaves, roots, stems, and seeds. It can be enjoyed as leafy green in culinary dishes or as a potherb, yielding high nutritional value (especially noted for its iron, protein and vitamin A & C, potassium, manganese and calcium.) Nettle tea can be made from the leaves, stems, and roots. It has many medicinal uses, including both oral and topical application for pain relief. The same parts of the plant can be crushed and used as a poultice –or for brave souls, applied directly– to painful areas. And the roots can be used as shampoo. The stems are used by many Coast Salish groups to make two-ply cordage and used as fishing nets and hunting snares.
Nettle heralds the wild bounty of the coming spring. The early shoots emerge in late January and tender young leaves are picked in subsequent harvests throughout late winter and Spring, and often a Fall harvest. Be on the look out for nettles beginning to sprout around local wildlands. Spring nettles are more tender and mild, with a green earthy flavor that some describe as similar to spinach. Although some foragers have refined techniques for harvesting nettles barehanded, most wear gloves to avoid being stung. The sting comes from tiny hairs on the leaves and stems that carry natural chemical that is an irritant to humans and other animals, leaving painful welts. Once steamed (or boiled) for five minutes or dried, nettles will not sting you. If you do get stung, and when it’s not intended to treat your arthritic pain, rubbing the exposed area of skin with nearby plant Yellow Dock (Rumex crispus – a useful plant in its own right) provides a readily available antidote. As does time: “just a day will do ‘ya.” Most harvesters use snippers to clip the tops of the plants, which may encourage plant vigor and growth for repeat harvesting in one season. Snipped tops go right into a bag. Foragers pay close attention to the locations of nettle patches and avoid areas that have exposure to toxins and heavy metals, such as roadsides and areas where herbicides may be used. Nettles grow on private and public lands. Publically-managed lands have different regulations about harvesting. Foragers may want to check with local jurisdictions about which laws apply.