by Mollie Doyle
I grew up in Providence, RI, and have spent the bulk of my adult life in big cities. So the signs of spring have always been things like bunches of imported daffodils at the supermarket. But now that I live here on Martha’s Vineyard, new things have become my signals: the sight of lambs in the fields at the Allen Farm; calls from friends to come meet their new chicks and piglets; and, as of last year, nettles.
Last April, a friend pushed a mug full of nettle soup into my hands. “Taste it,” she said. “It’s so good for you.” I had a sip. It needed salt, but it wasn’t bad—basically, it tasted like a richer and a bit slimier version of spinach soup. I had another sip. It was growing on me. There were other things I’d fix—maybe include some potato for texture, use less water—but there was something special about this bright green broth. I finished my mug and went in search of nettles.
Unfortunately, by the time I found some, it was too late. It turns out that wild nettles have more of a moment than a season. The plants need to be harvested and eaten when they are very young. Ideally, you harvest and eat up to 12 inches of the newest growth on the plant (you can cut the new growth to the ground), which means April or May for us around here. Once they’ve flowered or have grown to be more than a foot high, they go from being incredibly nutritious to tough, fibrous, and, some say, hazardous to your health.
As they mature, nettle plants develop cystoliths (Greek for cavity stones), which are essentially cells with lumps of calcium carbonate. I found many sources that say these can cause inflammation and damage to your kidney and liver. I also found equally as many sources that say this is a myth. After talking to Susan Bellincampi, Director of Felix Wildlife Sanctuary, I came to this conclusion: just eat the new young growth and you won’t have to worry about cystoliths.
Lynn Weber, head gardener of West Tisbury’s Island Co-Housing gardens, has two nettle patches and told me, with consistent trimming, she is able to harvest young nettle leaves from early spring through late November. Lynn said, “I just love nettle. The juice is filled with chlorophyll and the plant has iron and potassium. Its own juice heals the sting! And, I really love the idea that something that stings, that is supposed to be so awful, is also really so good.”
As Lynn suggests, nettle is chock full of nutrients. According to Andrew Chevalier’s Encyclopedia of Medicinal Plants, nettle leaves contain quercitin, histamines, choline, acetylcholine, serotonin, glucoquinone, calcium, potassium, silicic acid, and iron. He writes, “Nettle’s key use is as a cleaning, detoxifying herb. It has a diuretic action, possibly due to its flavonoids and high potassium content, and increases urine production and the elimination of waste products.” It can also be used to treat hay fever and asthma, alleviate heavy menstrual bleeding, and improve breast milk production, and the root is used to treat enlarged prostate. Other sources such as Kathi Keville’s Health for Healing Herbs and the Island’s Holly Bellebuono’s The Essential Herbal for Natural Health echoed these statements.
To find out more, I called Dr. Bill Roschek Jr., who is the Director of Research and Development for the Herbal Science Group and an author of one of the regularly cited scientific papers on nettle and its ability to relieve allergies. He and his team focused on seasonal allergies such as hay fever and found that nettle acts on “about five different enzyme receptors associated with the allergy cascade.” This makes sense, as one of the more popular and proven supplements for relieving hay fever is quercitin, which nettle has.
Maybe it’s because I grew up in a city, but I’m always looking for the shadows, the dark side. I found that the Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Maryland’s website has cautionary tales of nettle use. Chris D’Adamo, PhD, CPT, a nutritional research scientist at the University of Maryland, confirms that nettle is effective in treating arthritis, allergies, and enlarged prostate but cautions against its universal use. Stinging nettle may increase the body’s ability to clot, interfering with blood thinning drugs such as aspirin and warfarin. Because, it affects the whole immunological system, including the blood, it can also lower blood pressure and blood sugar, making high blood pressure and diabetes drugs dangerously more potent. Additionally, nettle is a diuretic, so eating too much or drinking too much nettle tea, might actually make one dehydrated. Of course, these cautionary tales apply more to those seeking and taking nettle supplements than to those who want to have an occasional bowl of nettle soup.
Which gets me back to soup, what I was looking for in the first place. Marie Fischer, who drinks nettle tea regularly for osteopenia (bone density), suggested to me, “Throw a bunch of nettle in the pot with some potatoes and onions and whip it up.” Her nephew Chris Fischer told me he likes to use it to “add substance to any number of vegetarian dishes—like, minestrone.” He paused and then said, “One of my favorite ways to use nettle is in stinging nettle pasta.” Chris pointed me to his old boss, Mario Batali’s, recipe. Bright green, homemade pasta with valuable nutrition? I’d spring for that.