Nasty (and Nice) Nettles
We usually associate stingers with insects and venom with snakes. But there is a plant on PEI that has both and is far nastier than any of our local invertebrates or reptiles. It’s also far tastier. Meet the well-named (and highly edible) Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica, Photo 1).
Stinging Nettle has a very effective built-in defence against predators. One touch will leave you with a burning, itchy rash, and prolonged contact can result in swelling, blisters, and – in severe cases – infection. If you look closely at the plant, you’ll see Stinging Nettle is covered in tiny hairs (Photo 2). Each of these hairs is stiff and hollow, and filled with a chemical cocktail including formic acid (the same compound that makes ant bites so painful). Touch the plant and you’ll be pierced by these needle-like hairs and injected with acidic venom.
But just like a person with a gruff exterior and heart of gold, Stinging Nettle is quite pleasant once you get past its defences. The sting is easily eliminated by cooking or drying, and the leaves and stems of young plants are high in Vitamins A and C, as well as calcium, iron, and protein. I wear rubber kitchen gloves to collect Stinging Nettle, boil or steam the plants for about a minute, and then run under cold water and drain well (or spin dry) before using.
You can eat the leaves as is; add them to soups, casseroles, omelettes, frittatas, or pizzas; sauté with oil and garlic; or – my personal favourite – use in place of basil in your favourite pesto recipe. I find the flavour similar to spinach, but nicer; it makes for an interesting ‘secret ingredient’ pesto that will surprise you and your guests! If you prefer, you can dry the leaves for tea, or rub fresh leaves in towel to remove the sting and eat them raw. (Pro tip: place them on a towel in a single layer, cover, and then press them with a rolling pin).
One note of caution if you’re going to try Stinging Nettle is to be sure you harvest it early, before it starts to flower. Flowering plants (Photo 3) develop sharp, insoluble crystals called cystoliths that are not only unpleasant to eat but may cause kidney or urinary tract problems.
In addition to being edible and nutritious, Stinging Nettle has a long history of being used to make textiles. In areas too far north to grow cotton, Nettle (along with Flax and Hemp) was traditionally important for cloth-making. More recently, blockades during the First World War prevented Germany from importing many goods – including cotton – and so Nettle was used to make soldiers’ uniforms. Processing the long fibres of Nettle stalks into cloth is a time-consuming process, but one that can be done at home (you can find lots of how-to videos). The result is said to be soft, strong, and durable. If you’d like to try the fibre without the labour involved, you can buy both Nettle yarn and cloth commercially.
Stinging Nettle is a common, native plant on PEI. It often pops up along streams, as well as in disturbed areas, along trails, and roadsides. It prefers lots of sun, but has a relative – the rare and even more venomous Wood Nettle (Laportea canadensis) – that can sometimes be found in very shady streamside areas. Wood Nettle has wider leaves, and flowers at the top rather than along the stem. Because it is rare in the province, I don’t recommend it be used for food or fibre.
Nettle is both a nasty and nice part of PEI untamed!