My formerly green(ish) thumb has been gradually turning brown over the past few years. The seeds I plant don’t sprout. I’ve been working harder than ever to provide them good, organic soil, and I even have a new sprinkling attachment for the hose, so they get a gentle rain instead of pressured spray. I have a few ideas about why this is so, but my main theory is that it’s gotten too shady in the backyard. The trees have grown and spread out. Even our mesquites, which are supposed to be semi-deciduous, are hanging onto their leaves and beans longer, with the warmer winters—continuing to make shade. It’s hard to believe any place in Tucson could be too shady, and of course for humans living outside, the shade is welcome more often than not. But seeds need sun and a warm bed, especially in the winter, the best gardening season here.
Sometimes I plant one thing, and another thing comes up. What often sprouts instead are “weeds,” mostly wild mustard, malva (cheeseweed), amaranth, purslane, and dandelion, as well as herbs I’ve planted in the past, notably arugula, chard, a special amaranth called Hopi Red Dye, and now—nettles.
Nettles have always reminded me of my first encounter with them. Boy, do I remember—even though I was quite young. Our neighborhood creek was still running wild, and most of my days were spent there, spring and summer and fall and even part of the winter. My little brother was obsessed with fishing, and in between trips to some lake or other, for which we had to depend on transportation from our parents, he would fish in the creek. The fish were small. He called them chubs. I don’t remember eating them; it’s possible he even threw them all back in. But he had to fish. And I had to build forts. Once or twice I dug holes, even catching a little mouse that way once (exciting!), but I think that was in our own backyard; at the creek it might be a snow fort or a dome of large branches covered with small, leafy ones.
That day I’m sure my brother was fishing, and I was no doubt experimenting with some kind of construction. We’d been getting along better since he got big enough to beat me up, instead of me beating him up, and we finished our activities at the same time, heading back home together on one of the trails. We knew about poison ivy, having been shown it many times until we were expert in its identification. As far as I knew, that was really the only plant to watch out for, except for a few that had thorns. Scratches? No big deal. But that day our eyes were opened. The trail was overgrown in places, and we just brushed through it. Until we both cried out in pain. Owwwww, my arms! My face! Feels like a million needles! We both arrived home in agony.
“Looks like you ran into some nettles,” Mom said, basing her diagnosis on our pain and the rashes we showed her. “It should go away by itself. Maybe in an hour or so.”
We howled in protest at that length of time. But she was right.
Probably anyone who’s had an encounter with nettles is shocked to learn that they’re edible. I was. I imagined the pain, only on my tongue. But it’s not like that; cooking fully disables the little stinging hairs; so does drying the plant. Furthermore, nettle has an impressively long list of health benefits, many of which are backed up scientifically. When it comes to herbal remedies, I tend to be skeptical. So I’m a sucker for studies. In fact, the list of the nettle’s positive traits is so long that I felt overwhelmed, compelled to shorten it, for myself and you, by noting only those that evidence has upheld. Here’s a partial list of research-supported benefits:
- It’s packed with nutrients, including vitamins and minerals
- It lowers blood pressure
- It relieves seasonal allergies
- It checks chronic inflammation
- It’s a strong antioxidant
- It boosts the immune system (a good Covid defense?)
- It provides better relief for arthritis than current pain drugs
- It controls blood sugar levels, acting like insulin
- It promotes respiratory health (certainly important in Covid and other infections)
- It’s protective of the liver
- Topically, it speeds the healing of wounds and burns (including the burns it inflicts!)
- It helps prevent enlarged prostate
- It’s at least somewhat effective in preventing hair loss
But it would be short-sighted to ignore the long traditions of this plant’s usefulness just because they hadn’t been studied yet by scientific methods. Nettle has a long history of applications worth paying attention to. I couldn’t possibly cover them all.
It also has a wide physical range, growing in Europe (where it’s native), Asia, and all over the U.S. I don’t remember how it came to my garden in Tucson. I must have bought some seeds at the Herb Store, but I have no memory of it. If so, it was probably a tentative purchase. I wouldn’t have believed that a Minnesota plant that grew high enough to brush our arms and faces as kids, could do well in Tucson. Desert plants, as a rule, aren’t lush.
But it came up one fall in the garden, an area smaller than a bicycle wheel, filled with vigorous little plants. Somehow I knew they were nettles. And knew not to touch them. I suppose pain has a way of recording its sources with lasting clarity. Internet photos confirmed my identification. Then purposefully, ever so slightly, I brushed my finger against a leaf. Oh, yeah. That was how it felt.
I didn’t harvest any of it that year. I wanted it to grow, set seed, expand its roots, or do whatever it needed to do in order to spread. And, to my delight, it did come up the following year, at least doubling its reach. Again I refrained from harvesting it. This year, it filled a good part of that particular plot. At last I felt I could snip off a few tops.
I reached in carefully with a pair of scissors, then with tongs to retrieve the heads. On a cutting board, I cut the leaves from the stems, and sauteed them in olive oil with some finely chopped onions until everything was soft. I broke two eggs over them – since the advent of our chickens, I’ve gotten good at using eggs—and scrambled everything together, with salt.
I really couldn’t believe how yummy this improvised dish turned out to be. Was this really the taste of nettles? Had the scramble, by accident, picked up some spice from a previous meal still stuck on the spatula or pan? It tasted like fresh spinach, but slightly sweeter and fuller.
I was soon ready to try the tea. Nettles are famous for the tea you can make from them. It was a simple matter of boiling the leaves (the stinging hairs are disarmed very quickly). Again, it was tastier than I imagined. It’s well known that getting used to a new flavor often takes time. Multiple samplings. But this tea was immediately delicious. And when I added some drops of heavy cream, it became a dessert.
Not bad for “medicine.” Not bad for a plant that came up on its own every year.
I always thought of a weed as a plant you didn’t plant, that grew wherever it wanted to. When I started learning about weeds that were edible, I still thought of them as weeds. They grew out of control, in alleys or sidewalk cracks. No one picked them, so they went to seed, and became mostly stem, and fell over at the end of the season. But if, before that scraggly end, I wanted to harvest some leaves, I’d go to where I knew they were. Whether or not I said it out loud to someone, I’d think of myself as making “weed soup.”
But then I saw arugula growing in the alley near the back gate. Was that my seed that had sprouted? Out here? Or where had it blown in from? The monsoons kept it thriving that year, but I couldn’t use it all—I had it in my garden, too.
I suppose I’d been planting domestic seeds long enough that they were everywhere, and didn’t need me anymore to find their time and place. I started to appreciate that. Especially when the ones I planted didn’t come up. If left alone, my gardens filled in with volunteers. Well, so what if they didn’t pop up in neat rows? They, at least, were happy with my backyard’s microclimates and whatever water they could get. Maybe my tastes could adapt to what they had to offer.
This approach was more like picking the free fruits of Eden than running a sweat-of-the-brow farm, where the two original sinners were sent for their crimes. The biblical story of Genesis has become a metaphor, now, for the “fall” of human societies from tribal hunting and gathering to an agricultural way of life. Jared Diamond called the shift to agriculture “a catastrophe from which we have never recovered.” He cites studies of ancient teeth and stature—which bear witness to dietary health—as measures of well-being where hunter-gatherers come out ahead. Other writers on the topic have even called agriculture the root of all evil, blaming it for the ruinous trends that threaten our species today. It makes sense that where farming supplied just one or two crops, a diversity of gathered foods and meats would have meant a better diet. But the issue is more complex than tooth surfaces and average heights. In the beginning, it wasn’t a matter of either-or. Some hunter gatherers also nurtured seed, and knew how to do it sustainably, alongside their natural territories. In some instances, they lived side by side or even well integrated with settlements. There’s evidence, too, that nomadic life included more tribe-on-tribe violence than we visualize them doing, and even murders may have been surprisingly common.
The debate still rages, and it’s not something a post on nettles should really get into. But the research, discoveries, and theories are fascinating. There are plenty of excellent articles and interpretive videos to check out on the Internet.
I want my “agriculture” to be the sustainable kind, and produce a diversity of foods. The front yard still gets sun, so the spinach and radish seeds I planted there are already healthy little seedlings. I’ll continue to visit the back yard to hand-pick “volunteers.” Except for the nettles. I’ll bring scissors and tongs for those.
You can buy nettle online in many forms and package types: dried leaf in a foil bag, tea in teabags inside a box, loose tea in a Ziplock bag, capsules in a plastic vitamin-type jar, liquid extract in a glass bottle with rubber dropper, powdered leaf in a variety of packaging, fresh cut tops with wrapping not shown. Or you could get some seeds and sow them in a bare spot. You’ll have to wait awhile. (So do it now!) A miracle herb is just fresher and happier right from the dirt, avoiding new packaging and fuming fuels, which suck.
To sum it all up: Gesundheit!