Stinging Nettles: A Perennial Herb So Good It Hurts

Every seed tells a story! In this blog series, we explore the in depth story of our seed varieties from seed to pack to art for our new art pack varieties. In this post, we explore the amazing perennial Stinging Nettle. This fiery heirloom has been been harvested for food, fiber, dye, and medicine since the Bronze Age.

stinging_nettle_1What Makes Stinging Nettles Stand Out: All northerners feel a special fondness for the wild greens of early spring. After months of trucked-in produce, the precocious growth of edible perennials can't come fast enough. Stinging Nettles are one of our favorites. Decorated up and down with a coat of tiny bristles, they can, indeed, sting. But if you wear gloves to harvest, and give them a quick steam, the histamines that cause the stinging disappear and the result is a glowing green mound of nutritious, delicious, melting, spinach-like greens. They are one of the most nutritious greens in the world, containing numerous vitamins, minerals, and up to 25% protein. Nettles also make a great pollinator plant, as they are an exclusive larval food for some butterflies.

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The History of Stinging Nettles: Stinging Nettles are native to at least three continents (including North America) and have been used by humans as food, fiber, dye, and medicine since around 1600 BC. They have such a long and diverse ethnobotanic history that to write it all would take volumes. They have served as vegetable rennet in cheesemaking, camouflage dye in military uniforms, a natural pesticide and soil tonic, an organic waste treatment filter, and much, much more. Julius Caesar’s army was the first to bring this useful plant to Britain as they traveled with Stinging Nettles seed for “urtification” purposes: a way to keep warm, alert, and arthritis-free in cold climates by flogging oneself with fresh nettles. South and North Native Americans pound dry nettle stalks into fiber. Nettles are written about by Shakespeare and Aesop. Their medicinal and nutritional powers are described by many, from Hippocrates to WebMD. Recently, Stinging Nettles have been gaining popularity in haute restaurant kitchens.

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How to Grow, Harvest, and Eat Stinging Nettles: 

Grow: Surface sow a few seeds per cell (ideally in early spring), and tamp down to firm the soil. Seeds will germinate in 10-14 days. Nettle takes a bit of time to take off, but can grow up to four feet high once established. A happy nettle patch will grow back and expand every season.

Harvest: Don’t be afraid of the sting: just wear gloves! Begin harvests in the second year of growth. Nettles are at their most tender in early spring (when they might appear purple due to the natural antifreeze in the leaves) and late fall. Wait till the plants are four inches tall, then clip with scissors or a knife. From late spring to late summer, stems become too fibrous to enjoy, but leaves are still useable, although they develop a gritty texture. Nettle seeds, harvested when green in mid summer, make a good seaweed substitute. Repeated pruning or even mowing throughout the season will encourage new growth, and thus more harvests.

Cook: exposing nettles to heat (by steaming, boiling, frying), blending or mashing them, or simply drying, will deactivate the stingers and ready them for eating. Steam, chop and saute with oil and garlic, make nettle soup, pesto, or tea to enjoy their delicious, rich, and nutty flavor.

amy-frazerAbout the Art: This beautiful Art Pack, painted and embroidered by artist Amy Frazer, tells the story of the Six Swans, a fairytale about a woman who saves her brothers by knitting shirts out of Stinging Nettles. You can see more about Amy’s process (and read the entire fairytale) on her blog.  Amy is a Portland, Oregon, based designer and illustrator who strives to capture the beauty of the world around us and embellish it with her personal mark making. Things made by nature and things made by man are huge inspirations to her. With extensive experience in product design, Amy enjoys designing objects as well as the prints, patterns and colors that adorn them. She loves to travel and always has a bag packed for her next adventure to the mountains, the sea or a fun city to explore and gather inspiration.

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Look for our Art of the Heirloom exhibit at a gallery space near your by visiting our events page in the weeks to come.

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