I knew that if I didn’t go out foraging today, the nettles would be past their prime. I called up my Mom.
“Want to go out for a walk in the sun? I’m going out to pick nettles.”
Any other lady of 87 would tell me to get lost. But I know Mom. She immediately said,
I knew she would. She’s loved the green, growing things all her long life, and her daughters have caught it from her.
So we set out out to do some urban foraging. I brought along the camera, a bag, and a pair of scissors. We didn’t need to go far, because right next to Mom’s is the abandoned garden, and plenty of nettles grow there.
I’ve been picking nettles so many years, the sting hardly bothers me anymore. I think it’s good for my carpal tunnel syndrome, anyway. But the smart way to pick nettles is to cut them with scissors and while the stems are still trapped between the blades, to pop the bunch into a bag or basket. Of course you have to deal with them later, but you can put on a pair of latex gloves.
The photo below shows the immature, green seeds. Once those seeds have turned brown and hard, the nettles aren’t worth picking anymore. Do you see the spiky “hairs” bristling on the leaf at bottom right? Those are the culprits that carry the sting.
Ah, but nettles are beautiful, mysterious things…
The sting, by the way, gets cooked out immediately upon contact with heat. Geese like to eat nettles raw, and I’ve read that when cattle eat them dried, mixed in their hay, their milk is richer. But I wouldn’t advise humans to put raw nettles in their mouths. Ouch.
It takes some work to get nettles clean. First, I cut off any roots, with the soil clinging to them.
But I don’t throw the roots out – I put them in an old plastic bottle with plenty of water, and let that infuse for a day or three. My houseplants love that water.
Then I sort the nettles out by length of stem. In sorting, I might find other plants that came along when I picked my nettles. I take them right out. This pretty clover and blade of grass have no business in my nettles…although such a tiny quantity is harmless.
Sorting makes rinsing and collecting into bunches for drying much easier. And they do need plenty of rinsing. Best is to let them soak in cool water for about 5 minutes ( don’t throw out that water – give it to your houseplants), then rinse. Then I hang ‘em up to dry. Depending on the weather, they’ll be crisp and dried through in about a week.
I harvest all the chickweed I need from my windowsill planters. Right now I have a lot drying for medicine: it’s excellent, made into tea, for eye infections. I also use it in the water part of a moisturizer I make. Finally, the young, leafy plants are very good in salad. Chickweed has a pleasant, somewhat salty taste. Here is some growing wild on the verge of a sidewalk.
Right next to the chickweed grows a stand of Pellitory of the Wall. This almost innocuous weed has a bright side and a dark side. On the bright, it’s a nutritious green that made into tea, works well as a diuretic and part of an herbal formula for expelling gravel from the urinary tract. On the dark, it flowers 4-5 times a year and about 20% of the population is allergic to its pollen.
Mom took my arm. We strolled over to a building whose front yard is covered in young mallows. She fielded questions from curious passersby. I photographed and harvested.
I like to eat the very small, tender leaves in salad. The big, coarse ones are good for stuffing, like grape leaves. This dish is traditional among Sephardim (and herbal folk like me). I’ve seen an old Sephardi lady wearing a headkerchief and a long, hennaed braid down her back, standing in a field of mallows, picking away.
Mallows were a valuable wild food during the War of Independence in 1948, when people were starving because the highways were blocked and there was no transportation of goods. Today, some people celebrate Independence Day by making old-time patties of chopped mallows, flour, and eggs. I mentioned this once to an elderly friend of mine in Tfat. He shuddered and told me he abhors mallows. They remind him of the hard times, when his mother would make him go out in the fields and pick them, and that’s all they would have to eat.
I don’t have such sad memories, and so pick my mallows in tranquility. It’s great to have dried mallows in a big glass jar when I run short of something green to chuck into a soup.
I really wish dandelions grew in this part of the country. But they don’t, so I’ll probably go up north to Tsfat, come March. I know the haunts of the dandelions there. But here, the mild, semi-tropical climate allows folks to grow bananas, goiabas, mangoes, and even papayas. This papaya tree is one of two growing in a building yard not far from my house.
Ethical harvesting from the wild involves keeping certain principles in mind.
- Don’t pick the first nettle, dandelion, or whichever plant that you see. Walk further on and if there are plenty more, start picking. You might just pick the only one in the area if you go for the first one.
- Pick no more than 1/3 of the plants you come across.
- Look for the “mother” – one very large plant that looks like the matriarch of the others standing around it. Leave it alone.
- When foraging bushes, trees, or large standing plants like mullein, pick only up to 1/3 of the leaves and flowers. Leave the rest to reproduce.
- Pick no more than what you need.
- Be grateful… And wait a few minutes while you’re standing in the middle of the plants. You might feel a moment of unity, almost of silent communication, with the green, growing things. I always do.
Recipes with nettles and other wild edibles will appear over the next week.