Nettles, Wild Swans, and May's Green Harvest
As the soil warms in April and May in southern Wisconsin, stinging nettles emerge, purplish, spiky, and shiny with a skin texture somewhat reptilian. We welcome them though their appearance warns us, I think, of their potent sting.
When I see nettles, I can't help but remember a fairy story from my childhood – the Hans Christian Andersen tale "The Wild Swans" – and the heart-wrenching image of Elisa, its main character.
In the story, Elisa's eleven brothers have been turned into great white swans. Before they are forever sent away, Elisa must find a way to turn them back into human form. Help is offered by the Queen of the Fairies. In a very powerful scene, the fairy directs Elisa to gather stinging nettles from around the cave where she is hiding, and from around graves in the churchyard. She tells her:
"Those you must gather, although they will burn your hands to blisters. Crush the nettles with your feet and you will have flax, which you must spin and weave into eleven shirts of mail with long sleeves. Once you throw these over the eleven wild swans, the spell over them is broken."
The fairy continues her directions by telling Elisa that she must not speak until the task is done.
"The first word you say will strike your brothers hearts like a deadly knife. Their lives are at the mercy of your tongue. Now remember what I told you!"
The story continues this way: The fairy touched Elisa's hand with nettles that burned like fire and awakened her. Close by to where she had been sleeping grew nettles like those of which she had dreamed. Elisa set to her task. She took hold of the stinging nettles that seared like fire. Blisters rose on her hands and arms, but she endured it gladly in the hope that she could free her beloved brothers. She crushed each nettle with her bare feet, and spun green flax.
Such striking and strange images. Why, of all things, shirts of stinging nettles to break enchantment? I wondered. Was this element of the story put in to heighten the sense of struggle? And how could nettles be spun into flax? Is this like the fairytale where straw is spun into gold?
Fairy stories often carry hidden truths. The story of weaving and spinning flax from nettles began to make sense when I worked at a nature center and learned to gather nettle stalks in winter. The chaff can be retted from the fibers by quickly rubbing the stalks between two hands, and the resulting beige-colored nettle fibers are soft and silky. What a surprise! Last year someone showed me how fresh nettles can be spun into cordage, green and strong, though care has to be taken to harvest and work with them.
I think about all these things when I begin harvesting nettles for food each spring. In my rural neighborhood, folks can't wait to eat fresh cooked nettles steamed or with omelettes – one of the first wild foods in our Southwest Wisconsin hills. But instead of using nettles fresh, I use them the way Swedes do. I dry them.
Dried nettles do not sting, and they are sweeter in flavor than fresh. They are high in protein: 10% by weight. Rich in chlorophyll and absorbable iron, magnesium, and calcium, nettles are a most helpful food year-round – but especially in wintertime. They bring spring and summer's green to the table. They store well, and best of all, nettles are free for the taking.
Throughout southern Wisconsin's countryside, stinging nettles often grow where old farm tools have rusted into the ground. Whenever I find a good patch of nettles, I purposefully relocate plants in spring, and I scatter nettle seeds in August. I grow my nettles along the edges of our gardens and especially in shady patches where leaves will grow large and dark green.
May and June are prime harvest months for nettles intended for drying. Harvesting nettles is easy to do painlessly. Collect nettle leaves on clear and dry spring and summer days. Use scissors, a bucket, and if you like, some work gloves. Snip off leaves right into the bucket. Select large, early, dark green leaves. If you wait too late to harvest, you'll find holes in the leaves, for they support many types of butterfly larvae. Later nettle leaves are small and not so green, and by the time the nettle plants bloom with tiny green flowers on long tassels, harvest time is over – until the second crop of nettles at summer's end sometime from late July through September.
For best results, spread nettle leaves on trays covered with clean white cloth such as cheesecloth or sackcloth. Use clothespins to attach the cover to the tray. Nettles need to be dried quickly, before humid weather attaches itself to them. If you place trays in the sunlight, the nettle leaves may dry within a day or two. If the drying takes several days, make sure to bring the trays indoors at night.
Store dried nettle leaves in glass jars. Use them the Swedish way, for a cool, refreshing drink or creamy green soup in winter. Nettles are so common in Swedish culture that packets of dehydrated nässlorsoppa – nettles soup – can be purchased at their grocery stores. You can prepare the nettles powder for soup by blending the dried leaves and following the recipe for NETTLES SOUP. Dried nettles are also wonderful as a condiment in soups and sauces, omelettes, spaghetti sauce, and anything that would use green herbs such as basil, dill, or parsley. You will be boosting minerals while you sigh with joy that you are harvesting a gift from land and celebrating green summer in winter.
Catherine Young is a writer, song crafter, educator, and farmer living in Wisconsin's Driftless Area. A lifelong forager and gardener, she has worked as a national park ranger, plant ecologist, teacher, and mother. She is currently working on a compendium of stories, recipes, and songs for each month of her Driftless farm year. Rooted in farm life, Catherine lives with her family in Wisconsin. Her writings and podcasts are available at http://catherineyoungwriter.weebly.com/