I was out on the trail last weekend and able to gather some beautiful nettles (urtica dioica) and put some of them up to dry and I saved some to make a delicious nettle pesto. Nettles are an incredibly nutritious herb that often grow in large stands on the edges of forests where theres a mix of shade and light. Collecting herbs in the field (wildcrafting) takes a little preparation and some thought about how to ethically harvest the plant. I like to know an area well before I do a lot of collecting. I avoid polluted areas, places where there is run off from dirty rivers and agricultural areas and generally I like to gather plants a little high up and away from the noise and bustle of the city (though I do harvest a few plants here and there in city parks).
I try to get to know the area and how well the nettles grow before I go about collecting it. Is it a strong stand and do the plants look healthy with little discoloration, signs of insect or fungal attack? Has it remained healthy from year to year? Is there enough of the plant that taking some will not harm the stand? Is anyone else wildcrafting the area (look for plants that have been cut.)
After getting to know the area you want to do some wildcrafting, take a look at how much of the plant there is in one area. I try not to take more than 10 percent of a stand of a wild plant. This is especially important not only for the stand of nettles but for the wildlife that rely on nettles. This includes the larva of a number of moths as well as certain butterflies.
I’m harvesting these nettles in mid-march, which is a little early for me, but we had a warm winter and an early Spring. The plants look strong, green and potent.
What are Nettles good for?
This iron rich herb is known for its ability to give strength and vitality to those who drink strong infusions of the plant. Nettles are filled with A, C and K vitamins and minerals such as calcium, potassium, silica, manganese as well as trace minerals and a high amount of protein and chlorophyl.
So nettles are great as a very potent mineral and vitamin tonic. I see them as especially helpful for folks who feel depleted, exhausted, stressed out and burnt out by the pace of modernity, or suffering from adrenal deficiency. Nettles has also been shown to be good for lung conditions such as asthma and for those who suffer from allergies such as hay fever. I call a strong infusion of nettles “forest milk”- a dark murky blackish drink that tastes earthy, deep and rich.
The best way to take nettles is to take about a cup of dried nettles and add that amount to a quart mason jar. Then add hot water to the top and let it infuse it overnight- or at least for a couple hours. Long infusions like this extract the most nutrient value from the herb.
When I’m out there with nettles, I take a small cutting knife, some gloves, some brown paper bags and I wear a long sleeve shirt or a jacket. This cuts down on how much I’m stung by the small hairs that distribute a formic acid rash when the skin brushes against the leaf lightly. I still get the rash though and I actually enjoy the effect, a feeling of truly getting to know nettles in all their glory. The sting is part of its medicine, a signature of its fierce warrior strength.
Before collecting, its key to know how much one will take and what it will be used for. I generally take just enough for a small amount of infusions for myself and clients as well as enough for some food- in this case pesto. Before gathering, I offer thanks to the plants and describe how I will use them. At times I will burn a small amount of cedar or sage, or offer something from my body such as a small piece of hair. I know an herbalist friend who leaves a little whisky- Irish style. I then cut the stalks about 2/3rds of the way down. The lowest leaves are the oldest and not as fresh. This also gives the nettle plant the ability to still grow instead of pulling it out completely. I collect in the early spring because the plants are the freshest and most potent at this time, but one can collect throughout the summer. I just find that the first rush is the best.
I gather my stalks and place them in brown paper bags and drive on home. At home I lay the nettles out
and start bundling them into small groups- not too big- maybe 10-12 stalks a piece. I then tie string around the
top of each bundle just underneath the stalks.
I then hang them up over my wood stove and get a roaring fire going.
I usually find that it takes 3-4 days hung
up over some good fires before they completely dry up.
They should feel pretty crackly- no wet smudgy feeling,
before you take them down.
Then garble them- that means, cut the leaves from the stalks and cut them up
into smaller bits and throw them into a good glass jar
for infusions, teas and what have you.
While I hang up the nettles and let them dry out over a fire, I take the extra and throw them into a pan.
Maybe about 4 stalks…
Fill the pan with some water and a bit of salt and then bring the water to a boil and let simmer for a couple minutes.
Then take the nettles out and pat them dry and cut them up.
Then throw that in a blender.
It should end up to be about a cup of wet nettles.
Then add some other ingredients. Here is my nettle pesto recipe
1 cup nettles
1/2 cup walnuts
1/2 cup olive oil
pinch or two of salt
3 cloves of garlic
A twist of lemon.
Blend it up and voila…a good day had by all…yum!
You can also find me at the Facebook group Herbs for Mental Health