It's Nettles Time

How do we know that spring is here? The nettles are back! Wild foods, says forager Jeremy Faber, show up like clockwork, and nettles are the first edible sign of spring.

Jeremy and his crew at Foraged & Found Edibles have nettles galore, and so does farmer Michaele Blakely of Growing Things, where the nettles grow wild on her property.

The nettle leaf, pictured above, is broad and pointy with edges like a fine-toothed comb, resembling an oversized mint leaf.

In the plant world, nettles are known as Urtica dioica, a perennial herb that grows wild in forests and woodlands, often near streams and rivers, throughout North America, Europe, parts of Asia, Russia and northern Africa.  There are stinging and non-stinging varieties; here in the Puget Sound, we’ve got stingers. What that means: There’s a network of nearly invisible stinging hairs on the stems and the undersides of the leaves. Also known as trichomes, these hairs contain a mixture of histamine, serotonin and formic acid, similar to the substance discharged by fire ants. 

Nutritional tidbits: One cup of parboiled nettles contains six grams of fiber and more than two grams of protein, for just 37 calories. It’s a good source of vitamins A and K, calcium, iron, potassium and magnesium.

For millennia, nettles have been revered for their botanical healing properties. Naturally detoxifying and anti-inflammatory, nettles have been a traditional remedy for sundry conditions, from seasonal allergies to gout. In addition to food and medicine, Native Americans used nettles to make twine, fishing nets and rope.

What to do with them: Cook them like spinach -- boiled, steamed, in omelettes and stir-fries. But first things first: Put on a pair of gloves to protect yourself from the stingers while washing (very important) and prepping. Once the nettles are cooked, the gloves can come off.