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Picking and preserving nettle

We are fortunate to be gifted every spring with an abundance of stinging nettle (Urtica dioica). While it’s sting can be unpleasant, it teaches us to pay attention to our surroundings and that’s a good thing.  It also offers food, medicine and fiber if one knows how to properly harvest it.

Don’t kill all the nettles out of your garden, because you might benefit from this weed-like herb! Not to mention, it is the perfect habitat for a lot of pollinator and predatory insects that will keep your other plants healthy.

If you would like to use nettle for food or drink (tea, beer, wine, kombucha), then harvest them before they flower. Picking the tender tops (usually 4-6 leaves) is the best for food. For fiber, harvest the entire stem, clip it near the ground. If you want to use the seeds, harvest them when they are still green and use them fresh or dry them for later use.

When harvesting nettle, use scissors and wear long sleeves, long pants and work gloves. When looking at your nettle, you can see little hairs on the stem and leaves. These hairs are hollow and when they get under your skin, the tips break off and allow the acidic juice under your skin. Even the lightest touch will get you stung, so don’t forget your gloves.

If you would like to dry your nettle for tea, there are many options. The simplest way is to make a bouquet of nettles and hang it to a dry place with a string and let the blowing air do the job. Once it’s dry, it’s much safer to handle since it loses the ability to sting. However, the hairs are still there and can be irritating to the skin or give you a sliver if you’re not careful. You can tell they are ready to store in a glass jar when the stems snap. Make sure not to dry the nettle to the point where it loses its green colour and turn brown or black. It’s just fine to use fresh plant material to make tea, but a lot of people prefer the taste of dried nettle.

Freezing your nettle for use throughout the year is also possible. Just toss them into a food processor and process until finely chopped. Then, put them into freezer-safe containers and store until you need them. The mechanical action of the food processor will break the hollow hairs so they are unable to sting you. Some people recommend blanching the nettles (adding them to boiling water, plunging into ice water, then using). Many of the nutrients are lost to the water and thrown out when blanching. Experiment and you will find a way that works best for you and your family.

Stinging nettle can substitute for spinach in any cooked recipe (they lose their sting when cooked). You can add them to lasagna, make pasta with them, throw them in soups or stews, etc. Online recipes abound.

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