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Spring Harvesting {or, An Ode to Stinging Nettle}


Future cherries.

We’re enjoying a sunny spring weekend here in the PNW, and the wild harvests are beginning to add up.  Of course the Queen of Spring is the stinging nettle (I was going to say King of Spring for the alliteration, but nettle just isn’t masculine in energy), especially on this soggy little hillside.  Nettle season is winding down now, as the plants grow large and head towards flowering, and though I normally pick and enjoy some of it every spring, I’ve gone a little crazy with the harvest this year.  I feel like Forrest and Bubba in the movie Forrest Gump (and really, was there ever such an unlikely and delightful movie ever made? Sweet, sad, poignant, funny, preposterous and believable all at once.) listing all the things one could make with shrimp, but instead I’m using stinging nettles:  Nettle soufflé, nettle soup, nettle scrambled with eggs (think Florentine), nettle omelet, nettle pesto, nettles in tomato sauce, nettle stir fry, dried nettle, nettle tea…  I don’t think you can barbecue nettle, though I could be wrong.

I’m getting a little sick of it–it is some GREEN-ass food—but feel like I’ve done a bit to get my spring tonic, even if I didn’t make a dent in the nettle population here.  I’ve harvested bags and bags of it – a grocery sack packed full in 10 minutes is no exaggeration.  It’s not an easy harvest, other than the speed and abundance, because handling all the way to getting it in the pot must be done with care (rubber dish gloves are the best – impervious and long enough to go up past your wrists), and even then you get jabbed (usually through my jeans as I step too closely to the patch I’m harvesting). This property is prime stinging nettle habitat, even if the rest of us struggle with the damp (mud) and shade.  And this year I feel like maybe nettle is what I need for my health, to combat the dreary wet so pervasive here, and definitely helpful for my lung issues, too.

Harvesting nettle isn’t new, of course, but it still surprises when you do a little reading on it.  Another name for it is “Indian Spinach” (it’s very spinach-like in flavor and texture when cooked), though it’s not clear if this was a traditional use by Northwest tribes or something introduced by Europeans.  Euell Gibbons, the well known outdoorsman and wild foods enthusiast of the 1960s, calls this “one of the finest and most nutritious vegetables in the whole plant kingdom, a far better vegetable than many of those … [laboriously raised in a farmer’s kitchen garden].”

On Easter Sunday I enjoyed several homegrown meals, and thought I would make some nettle soup to go with my first-ever leg of lamb – I had several in the freezer from last summer’s harvest and needed to use them up.  I pulled out a cookbook of my mother’s that I thought would be a good prospect for traditional leg of lamb: an Irish cookbook, because the Irish raise a lot of sheep, called “Feasting Galore, Recipes and Food Lore from Ireland,” by Maura Laverty.  I looked in the index first and found precisely nothing under Lamb.  There was one recipe listed for mutton (a pie), but as I glanced though, the word Nettle caught my eye.  Who knew?  There were two recipes, including one for a nettle soup that was very different from the ones I was finding online.  Ms. Laverty describes “Not so long ago, if you strayed along a country road in springtime, you would find women gathering nettles, their hands and arms protected by black woolen stockings.” And mirroring what Euell Gibbons said, “For many a long year nettles were to the Irish what spinach is to other peoples. And many of us still feel that young tender nettles more than equal the best of spinach. ‘One feed of nettles in the spring will keep you healthy for the year’ is a belief which persists in country parts where the blood purifying qualities of nettles are still appreciated.” I looked in the front of the book to look up the publishing date (©1952 – so that “not so long ago” above, was more than 60 years past now) and found this:


I knew this was here, of course, but “forgot” it too – a sweet, poignant reminder. The fact that she signed her name in it the year I was born is probably the reason I got it versus any of my siblings.

It was odd to see my name and birth year – my mother was also M. Finn for a time, but she and my father divorced when I was 6 or 7, so I didn’t know her as this for most of my life. Then remembering when she sent the book to me, with the inscription, when I first had my own household.  My Irish Maureen – she always saw her brood of five as Irishmen, and indeed, we carry 50% of that heritage along with the names.  But when I look in the mirror now all I see is the Polish/Hungarian heritage, as I look more like her every year.  Nowhere near as beautiful as she was, even in my prime, but the sweet “Little Marian” appellation by my great aunt that somewhat irritated me when I was in my 20s (not only did I not see the resemblance, this brat didn’t want to look like her mother back then), makes so much more sense now.  And now I see it and cherish it, as it’s all I have left of her, other than photos, keepsakes and cookbooks.

So I made the nettle soup to go with the lamb.  It wasn’t technically lamb – I (purposely) didn’t know which sheep I was dining on, the younger of the two taken to the abattoir that day was over about 14 months old, the older was 3 years old.  Growing up, my mother served lamb occasionally, and it was one of the few foods I didn’t like, even as an avowed carnivore from a young age. The best thing about lamb was the mint jelly served with it. But I’ve been pleased with the mildness of the Shetlands’ meat, and decided to take the plunge. I found some recipes for prepping the leg (though they all described leg of lamb as 7-8 pounds – what kind of monster lamb has a leg that’s 7 or 8 pounds?!).  My wee Shetland leg weighed in at 1 pound 12 ounces!  Laughable, but plenty for me.  I rubbed it with salt and pepper and rosemary, made small slits and inserted the slices of a couple of garlic gloves, and tucked it in the oven.  It took longer to roast than the cookbook said – partly because I like my meat more than just “rare.”  I am pleased to report it was delicious!  It went great with the yummy nettle soup I’d made, and provided a homegrown bounty that was both nutritious and delicious.

In the fall maybe I’ll tackle harvesting it for fiber, because yes, it has been traditionally used as a fiber, similar to linen.  Aaand maybe not.


Gratuitous cuteness: Daisy watching me succumb to her charms. She throws herself down, knowing I’m hopeless to resist her. Heart this dog!


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4 thoughts on “Spring Harvesting {or, An Ode to Stinging Nettle}

  1. your feast has my mouth watering. I love how everything you ate you had grown/harvested.

    • mcfwriter on said:

      Thanks, Bliss! My mouth was watering too, as I wrote it, remembering the meals – I think I need to make more of the soup this week. 🙂

  2. This winter was the first time I heard about nettle pesto, and am certainly intrigued. The wooded lane down which I ride my horse has some nettles, and I’ve been eyeing them the last couple weeks. They grow fast; how big is too big for harvest?

    • mcfwriter on said:

      The nettle pesto was delicious, Michelle. I used walnuts instead of pine nuts and had several meals with the batch I made. There are plenty of recipes online, but all you need are some nettle leaves (blanched), olive oil, walnuts, garlic, a bit of lemon juice and a little Parmesan cheese.
      You can harvest the leaves up until the plant starts to flower – once it enters the flowering stage it produces a compound that can irritate the kidneys (the flower and seeds) so most people just avoid the entire plant then, just to be safe. You can probably still harvest the ones you’re seeing. The main stem might be getting a little tough by now (growing that fall fiber!), but I’m going to harvest some more this weekend – tips and first couple tiers of leaves. Enjoy!

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