Kelsey-with-nettles

Kelsey Barrett makes sure to wear gloves when harvesting stinging nettle.
Photo: Becca Rosen

Berkeley’s Ohlone Herbal Center is a place for the study and practice of traditional Western herbalism. Core faculty member Kelsey Barrett provides a glimpse into this field with an introduction to a nourishing green and a recipe to help us move healthfully from winter to spring.

Emerge from Winter with the Power of Nettles

By Kelsey Barrett

“Nettles may be found by feeling for them in the darkest night” —Nicholas Culpeper

Nettles growing in Oakland

Nettles growing in Oakland

Whether you are a friend or foe of the infamous herb stinging nettle, this plant will not let you pass by without saying “hi” with a sting. In California, our spring greens are already popping up, and you will most definitely want to harvest nettle in the lengthening daylight hours to avoid its sharp hello! Nettle is a nutritive spring tonic that provides heating and drying actions to the body. As humans slowly emerge from our winter hibernation, we wisely eat this spring green to cleanse and invigorate the body.

Nettle is native to Europe, Asia, northern Africa, and western North America, and its medicinal power is a beloved mainstay in folk herbal medicine. Archaeologists say nettle has survived multiple ice ages, following man around, and can plant its roots just about anywhere. Nettle is high in protein and iron, and contains pro-vitamin A, vitamin B complex, and vitamins K1 and C. It supports detoxification while deeply nourishing the body, a rare medicinal ability. It’s so potent to inner body ecology that nettle’s medicinal power is expressed in the exterior via clearer skin and brighter, thicker, and shinier hair. Incorporating this spring green into your weekly diet gives health and beauty, from the inside out.

For home gardeners who are growing nettle or have volunteer plants, they are a resource for healthy soil and a habitat for more than 40 species of beneficial insects, including butterflies. The stinging fibers on the nettle stalk act as a defense against grazing animals, creating an ideal environment for these insects, which include some pollinators. Once the plants have gone to seed, add them to compost to make a potent fertilizer, which infuses copious nitrogen and potassium back into the soil. Beyond its chemical and ecological attributes, nettle holds important folkloric significance: Nettle patches were believed to be a sign of fairy dwellings to the Celts. Plant a few nettle starts if you’re looking to add a little old world magic to your garden this year!

Nettle-pesto_400

Rich in protein, iron, and vitamins, nettles are the basis
for this delicious pesto. Photo: Kelsey Barrett

Nettle Pesto

2 cups packed fresh nettle leaf and seed
2 cloves fresh garlic, peeled
1/3 cup toasted sunflower seeds
2/3 cup cold pressed extra-virgin olive oil
1/3 cup freshly grated raw goat cheddar cheese
Sea salt to taste

With kitchen gloves, de-stem the leaves and seeds from the nettle stalk. Grate cheese with a cheese grater or slice finely. Lightly toast the sunflower seeds in a frying pan.

Combine the nettle, garlic bulbs, toasted sunflower seeds, salt, cheese, and oil and blend on high. Blend roughly 1 minute or until thoroughly smooth. Blending will begin to break down the nettle stinger. Add pesto to a frying pan, bring to warm, and stir. Warming will completely break down nettle stinger and bring flavors together.

Transfer to a bowl, add a splash of oil, and sprinkle sunflower seeds on top. Serve and enjoy with Mission Heirloom’s gluten-free Yucan CRUNCH crackers or a French baguette.

Fresh nettle can be purchased seasonally at your local farmers’ markets and Monterey Market in Berkeley.