In my world, foraging goes hand-in-hand with gardening. Maybe it’s because the compulsion to do both comes from the same place in my brain (a fascination with the natural world and an interest in knowing how things work). Or maybe it’s because I am thrifty and can’t stand the idea of so much good stuff going to waste. I’m able to save money and find a second use for discarded objects by foraging for bits and bobs for my garden. I forage for fertilizers too. And come to think about it, it might also be because I am interested in how wild foods that were once valued have been denigrated and demoted through history from nourishing wild food to a lowly, undesirable weed and I want to know for myself if they really deserve that indictment (two words: they don’t).
Whatever my reasons, I can’t imagine gardening without foraging and vice-versa.
This year I’m making more of an effort than usual to keep on top of foraging for early spring plants. There are several that are only edible within a short window of time and I don’t want to miss any of them, as is often the case. This year I got started harvesting stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) earlier than ever, since this is one herb that absolutely MUST be harvested in the early spring while the plants are still young and tender, and BEFORE flowers start to appear. I want to stress the importance of that fact since you can damage your kidneys consuming mature nettle parts.
Unfortunately my secret spot is no longer accessible. I am often able to harvest bags of the stuff, but this year could only get half of one bag. I had intended to glean enough for a big batch of nettle soup and a couple of bundles to dry for tea. I managed to get enough for tea, but do not have enough to make soup.
And now this is where I introduce a disclaimer about how I am not a medical professional and am not certified to dish out medical advice, yadda, yadda, yadda.
That said, nettle tea is said to be a mineral-rich tonic that can help allergy sufferers fight the symptoms of seasonal allergies. It’s the kind of remedy that has to build in your system — you can’t expect to drink one cup of tea and find yourself symptom free. This year I decided that I would get an early start on the tea and see what happens. So far so good, but in all honesty I haven’t been drinking it long enough to consider any positive effects.
Be advised that the “stinging” in stinging nettle is there for a reason. Merely brushing bare skin against the plant can hurt. A lot.
If you plan to go out picking nettles I suggest bringing along the following:
- A pair of leather gloves. I use the cheap workman’s gloves you can buy for just a few dollars at the hardware store. They’re bulky but the sting can not penetrate. It can penetrate through thinner cotton gloves. Take my word for it.
- A sharp pair of scissors or pruners for harvesting.
- A bag or bags for collecting the plants.
Wear the gloves whenever you handle fresh nettle parts (leaves or stems). The sting only goes away once the plant has been dried or cooked. Don’t wash the leaves if you intend to dry them or they’ll go brown. I bundle mine up, wrap with twine, and hang in a dark, well-ventilated spot. I do wash the parts that are used in soup, but only if I intend to cook them up immediately upon returning home with a harvest.
You can find out more about stinging nettle and foraging in general under the newly added “Foraging” category.