The First Nettles of Spring

This year we ate all winter from the broccoli and greens growing under frost blankets. Even so, it remains a major spring event when the first nettles are ready to pick. They taste so good and give such an all-over glow of virtue.  There are people who think that nettles have special medicinal benefits. My own belief is that all dark leafy greens have medicinal benefits, and the important thing is to eat as wide a variety of them as possible. But that first meal from the uncovered soil does confer a special feeling that spring is finally and truly here.

If you aren’t familiar with them, consult a good wild-food field guide, and be aware that the sting is quite uncomfortable and can last hours. Have leather gloves handy for picking. They’re ready to harvest when 6-8” tall. I cut off the top 2” or so, including as much leaf and as little stem as possible.

I turn them into a big bowl of water and stir gently with a wooden spoon for 2-3 minutes to get dirt off.

My favorite tool for lifting them out of the water, leaving any dirt that was present at the bottom of the bowl, is a pair of “salad hands” that somebody once gave me as a hostess gift. A large slotted spoon would work too. I make sure to throw the water on a garden bed. We live in the desert, after all.

Cooking nettles is a breeze, but in my opinion chopping is a necessary step, to eliminate stringy stems. First I put them in the pan with about half a cup of water, and cook over high heat, stirring, for about two minutes or until thoroughly wilted. The water should be pretty much gone. Turn out on a cutting board, let cool for five minutes or so, and chop. The cooking has eliminated their capacity to sting, and you can handle them with impunity now.

The flavor of nettles is rather like spinach, but deeper and richer, with a slight feral twist. I especially like them creamed, and always eat the first ones this way. Slice up two big fat green onions, sauté them in butter until cooked, add chopped nettles, sauté another minute or so, add heavy cream just to cover, boil for a couple of minutes until the cream is thickened, and salt to taste. Serve with freshly ground pepper and nothing else, so that you can taste the true flavor of the nettles.  You can also use netales in absolutely any way that you would use cooked spinach. They are infinitely versatile, and I have never served them to anyone who disliked them.  After the initial cooking and chopping, they can be frozen for later years. Whenever I wash and cook nettles, I try to make about twice as much as I need for immediate use, so that I can freeze the other half.

They can be dried for tea, although I do not care for the watery tasting tea that results and don’t bother.  Adding a twist of orange peel or something similar would give more flavor. I am not much of a tea drinker, but if you are, this might be worth considering.

If, like me, you live in an area who are nettles don’t grow naturally, there are some considerations to growing them in your yard.  First is obtaining them. When I first started growing them in central New Mexico about 12 years ago, I could not get seeds to germinate and no herb nurseries offered them. I finally called an herb nursery from whom I was buying other things and asked if they could please find me some nettles.  The “plants” I received had clearly just been dug from the nearest roadside, and were little more than cut rhizomes in potting soil, but they grew just fine.  These days they are easier to find and a number of mail order nurseries have them.

Siting  must be done carefully, because of the sting and because they are invasive.  I have mine in an area surrounded by concrete, where they cannot escape to parts of the yard where I don’t want them.  My large dogs are readily able to avoid them, but I have heard that they could do real harm to very small dogs, so keep this in mind.   Growing them in areas where small children could get into them is an obvious no-no. They get tall and gangly and flop around, but if cut or mown back in summer, they stay neater and make a second crop in fall.  I hope that I am never without nettles in spring.

 

 

5 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Emma@ Misfit Gardening on March 17, 2018 at 10:56 pm

    I love nettles! I used to make a seasonal nettle beer back in England. I’ve been trying to grow them here in UT but not had much luck with seed either. I’ll have to check online to see about getting some plants instead! Thanks for sharing, have a wonderful week!

    Reply

    • Posted by wooddogs3 on March 17, 2018 at 11:27 pm

      Currently nettle plants are available at https://strictlymedicinalseeds.com/product/nettles-stinging-urtica-dioica-potted-plant-organic/
      This is a firm that I’ve dealt with several times and always gotten good plants.
      If your Utah soil is alkaline, you may want to mix in some peat moss and gypsum before planting nettles,and plan to water frequently. They take a couple of years to establish well in high desert areas, but then they grow like gangbusters.
      I have read about nettle beer in British garden books but have never tried it. Must be powerfully healthy stuff 😉

      Reply

      • Posted by Emma@ Misfit Gardening on March 17, 2018 at 11:45 pm

        I don’t know about healthy but it was strong and cheap for students to brew! LOL Thanks for sending the link I will have to check them out!

  2. I’m looking forward to these! Just got another blanket of snow the other day and regukar freezing, so nettles aren’t venturing out yet. I am scraping together some delicious dandelion greens from the greenhouse though. Thanks for reminding me that nettles do grow at some point.

    Reply

    • Posted by wooddogs3 on March 23, 2018 at 6:12 pm

      Soon, I hope. My heart goes out to you. I don’t have the fortitude to live in northern areas anymore. I remember in my last year in Syracuse, when finally we were beginning to see some crocuses and early daffodils, and then got another blizzard with 10 inches of snow. I remember sitting in the house watching the snow blow in and getting tears in my eyes. Yech. Springtime soon for you and yours!

      Reply

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