THE WILDER SIDE OF OAKLAND COUNTY
When I first became acquainted with stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) in the wilder side woods of Oakland County it was a during a late May afternoon meander on a trail. I was wearing shorts and came home with redness and a fierce itching stinging pain from my ankles to my knees. Stinging nettle found me all those years ago with painful results. Now I purposely look for this nutritious wild vegetable as an addition to my menu.
This fascinating wildland plant with a rich medicinal and gastronomical history tends to thrive in moist woodlands, near shaded trails and disturbed rich soil habitats. In Oakland County they are especially prolific in old farm lands and appear in the same areas year after year. These dark green plants that appear a bit like mint to the untrained eye are covered with tiny, nearly invisible stinging hairs that release an irritating chemical causing an intense pain reaction.
But according to the University Of Maryland Medical Center when the tiny chemical-laded spines come into contact with a painful area of the body they can actually decrease the original pain. “Scientists think nettle does this by reducing levels of inflammatory chemicals in the body, and by interfering with the way the body transmits pain signal. And they go on to explain, “Stinging nettle has been used for hundreds of years to treat painful muscles and joints, eczema, arthritis, gout, and anemia. Today, many people use it to treat urinary problems during the early stages of an enlarged prostate, for urinary tract infections, for hay fever or in compresses or creams for treating joint pain, sprains and strains, tendonitis, and insect bites.”
Herbal books, including the acclaimed Medicinal Plants and Herbs of the Peterson Field Guide Series, empathize that the dried leaves can be used in a tea that helps alleviate symptoms of allergies and the iron-rich leaves have a long history of use as a potherb.
But for me nettle is food; fresh, wholesome and free and this is the season of nettle gathering. Be sure to wear heavy work gloves and do not let the nettles touch exposed skin. The tender young leaves are the best part of the plant and they come off easily if you strip them from the top down. The plant will grow more than four feet tall, but by the time they are more than a foot tall I consider the foraging season for nettles over.
The internet is awash with cooking methods. Simple is best. Steam the leaves for a few minutes or boil in water like spinach and you will have a fresh side dish. Don’t overcook them but never ever eat them raw. Dina Falconi, author of Foraging and Feasting, describes the art of foraging this way, “To forage means to dance with the land. It reconnects us to the exhilarating yet humble place within the web of life.”
Text and photos by Jonathan Schechter, Oakland County Parks Nature Education Writer. www.DestinationOakland.com