Nettle (or, A Feral Princess Haunting the Edgelands) - theHumm June 2019
Nettle (or, A Feral Princess Haunting the Edgelands) - theHumm June 2019
By Susie Osler
Horsetail… timothy… mullein… bramble… goldenrod… vetch… elderberry…. My eyes move slowly, feasting on the verdant verge between the willow growing out of the swale draining into the pond close by, and me sitting at the lawn edge. Catkins droop from the umbrella of branches above. Veery trills its metallic melody from the forest close by. Wren chats at something — perhaps me — from behind. Somewhere warbler squeaks out its squeaky-wheel song. Poplar scent thickens the air. It is the pinnacle of spring — an uncontrollable eruption of greens across the landscape. Life swells upward from deep in the earth.
Amidst the glamour of this island of wildness stranded between lawns, pond and garden, and shrouded by the hunch of the willow, I am beholding a colony of nettle fanning out before me, quietly but surely advancing her territory. This pocket of rich, moist soil that runs along the swale and pond edge has become ever-expanding nettle territory over the years. And now, the garden adjacent to the pond — which always had a mind of her own — has finally abandoned her corsets of control and firmly embraced her wild side — opening to nettle’s sideways but persistent advances with apparent glee.
For the last few weeks I have enjoyed an almost daily ritual of harvesting nettles. Today, I’ve been sipping tea made with a harvest I took this morning. And, now sitting here next to her with my tea, I suddenly become aware that the fluids circulating within my body are miraculously being infused with minerals and nutrients the nettles themselves, perhaps just this morning, have taken up from deep in the soil right under my feet! This miraculous exchange of nutrients from soil to plant to me is happening right here, right now, and strikes me suddenly as being simply profound, and utterly and completely intimate. How can one understand this and not marvel?
Nettle — Urtica dioica — will be familiar to most folk, for at some time or another one is likely to have been startled with a sharp Hey, hell-ooo! Watch it! I am here! In other words, you may have felt the sting as you brushed by a patch unawares. Sadly her sting, plus her ability to infiltrate and colonize a tidy garden or disturbed ground, is the unfair reputation with which the plant has been most commonly stuck.
Yet so often, quickly-formed judgments overlook the more potent nuances of things. Spend time with nettle — respecting and revering her deep, earthy green, and strong, upright character — and she begins to reveal her deeper nature. Prominent veins and a sturdy, square stem suggest a strong structure and clear channels for circulating energy and fluid up and outward throughout the plant. Beneath the ground, a network of crisscrossing rhizomes, spreading horizontally, connects the entire community of plants you see aboveground. Nettle’s strong vertical and lateral energy for me signals a capacity to conduct energy in all directions.
Nettle provides a deeply supportive whole-body tonic at a time when we most need it. As the winter recedes and the garden has not yet yielded first crops, nettle, one of the first-to-emerge wild greens, bridges the gap. It is most often found in the “between” places — edges of woods, barnyards and pastures, hedgerows, ditches and gardens — where the soil is rich and moist. She’s a feral princess haunting the edgelands.
Nettle nourishes the body when taken in teas and infusions, or cooked like spinach in any number of recipes. She is revered by old cultures and herbalists as one of the most nutrient-dense plants we have — very high in vitamins C and A, iron, calcium, potassium, manganese, magnesium, silica, sulfur, chlorophyll, and also amino acids (protein building blocks). She is deeply nourishing.
As her preference for moist locations might suggest, nettle has an affinity for taking up and activating the fluids in the body. Eaten or imbibed, it acts as a nutritive tonic for the tissues of the body with a particular affinity to the urinary, renal, adrenal and reproductive systems. Nettle stimulates the flow of fluids in the body, helping to get things moving; detoxifying and nourishing blood and intercellular fluids that may have become stagnant, wan and depleted after a long winter.
Nettle can be harvested through the entire growing season. Don’t worry — the sting disappears with cooking. Her tender shoots and leaves emerge in early May and are delicious in pesto, spanakopita, spring soup (with other spring greens like sorrel and dandelion) and anywhere you might use cooked spinach. Throughout the summer, though not as tender, the leaves can still be cooked fresh, used in tea, or dried for winter use (e.g. in smoothies or teas). At the end of summer the plants (which may reach a height of over six feet!) droop with tassels of tiny seeds that contain essential fatty acids. Harvest and eat them straight-up in small amounts or mixed into porridge, muffins and the like for a nutritional energy boost that also supports healthy skin, nails and hair. Finally — a gift for men especially — the roots harvested in the fall, when the energy descends down into the ground, can make a good tincture or tea for tonifying a tired or inflamed prostate!
Nettle recipes abound online — for everything from pesto (delicious) to hair rinse, so give them a try and see what you glean from this beautiful plant! Just be sure to treat her with care and a good dose of gratitude and respect!
For posts on nettle and other plants covered in this column, visit @pineoakyarrow on Instagram.
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