The Wood Nettle (Laportea canadensis) is a delicious wild edible green that is in peak right now. This is often confused with the European native; Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica), which was brought to North America by early settlers. Both, are edible, but the Wood Nettle is supposedly more delicious. Don't worry, it stings too!
The Wood Nettle is often found along forest edges, shady coves, stream sides, and moist hardwood forests. Conversely, the Stinging Nettle is usually found in areas with more sun (we aren't sure that we have ever seen this in our area). Both can be eaten similarly.
Shoots first emerge in mid-spring and can be harvested directly even before the leaves unfurl. (We haven't done this yet...) Apparently, the shoots are very tender at this stage and can be boiled and eaten like asparagus.
As the leaves emerge a few weeks later, the shoots become less tender and more spiky. At this point, though still edible, the shoots are likely less appealing. The leaves are generally clustered in the top half or third of the plant and the nettles can be harvested (shoots, leaves, and all) with a knife at this point. A very sharp or serrated knife works nicely. Leaving some stalk and leaves remaining can potentially aid in new sprouts. Post-harvest, the entire stem with leaves can be blanched and cooked like any other green or the leaves can be picked off and eaten the same way. Additionally, dry and pick the leaves to be used for tea or added to soups later throughout the year!
Of course it should be noted that both the Stinging Nettle and Wood Nettle STING! (As Thayer mentions, in fact, the Wood Nettle stings worse than its aptly named cousin). So caution should be used while harvesting the shoots or leaves. Gloves are a good idea. Then again, we have heard of people with bad arthritis who temporarily relieve symptoms by walking or running their hands through a bed of nettles...
Nettles are a very prolific and delicious wild green. We have prepared them many ways;
- Blanched: Bring a pot of very salty water to a rolling boil. Using tongs, drop nettles (shoots and leaves, or leaves by themselves) into the pot and boil for approximately 4 minutes. Remove nettles directly and run under cold water. (Now simply cook as you would any green or add to soup.)
- Tincture: Fill a mason jar to just below the brim (packed) with freshly harvested nettles. Pour an amount of grain alcohol to fill the jar and keep the nettles submerged. Shake daily for about 4-weeks ensuring that nettles remain submerged in the alcohol. Strain and decant into dropper vials. Consult a healthcare professional regarding use.
- Tea: Place harvested shoots and leaves (or leaves by themselves if already picked) in a food dehydrator. (They can also be dried in paper bags but we have found a dehydrator to produce a nicer product with less risk of spoiling). They can be packed in tightly as they shrink considerably with drying. Dry at 100-deg.F until thoroughly dry (about 12 hours). Once dry, remove stems and discard. Crumble leaves and store in an air-tight jar.
See the following references for more information on identifying, harvesting, and preparing nettles. (These references have also been used in the development of this calendar entry):
- The Forager's Harvest: A guide to identifying, harvesting, and preparing edible wild plants by Samuel Thayer - A very good account of the difference between the Wood Nettle and Stinging Nettle. Also details regarding range / habitat, identification, harvesting, and preparing nettles.
- A Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants by Lee Allen Peterson - Useful for identification of nettles in the wild. Light on uses and preparation. Distinguishes between the Wood Nettle and Stinging Nettle.
- Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner's Guide by Rosemary Gladstar - A great discussion of the medicinal properties and uses of nettle plants. Centered around the Stinging Nettle but the content carries across both varieties.
* NOTE* As with all wild harvesting, extreme caution should be used in consuming plants due to improper identification as well as unknown allergies. Only harvest nettles if you are 100% sure that you have identified them correctly. There are look-alikes...