Nourishing Nettles

INDEPENDENCE -- Jeannie Berg had wrestled during the last few years with selling stinging nettles alongside her other fresh produce at farmers markets.



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Jeannie Berg cuts stinging nettle plants for her farmers market booth along the Willamette River near Independence Friday.

INDEPENDENCE -- Jeannie Berg had wrestled during the last few years with selling stinging nettles alongside her other fresh produce at farmers markets.

The master gardener from Independence has used the weed herself for many years, incorporating it into salads or steeping it with hot water to brew a tea.

After catching a segment on nettles on the "Rachel Ray Show" this winter -- "I was bedridden with the flu, I never watch daytime television" -- Berg surmised the prickly plant was now "mainstream" enough to bring to her customers in early April.

"It seems I was right because I brought a bunch of them with me (to the Independence Farmers Market) and sold out well before the end of the day," she said.

"And there wasn't just one type of person," she continued. "Some knew what it was and were excited about it, and there were folks who've never tried them before."

Photo by Pete Strong

Berg talks with Monmouth residents, from left, RJ. Holt, Sidney Ewing and Bethany Holt about cooking and eating stinging nettles at the Independence Farmers Market Saturday.

You've probably noticed stinging nettles growing along fence rows and ditches, or while hiking through wooded areas. Unless you don't mind the burning sensation they impart when brushed against, you've avoided them.

But the fervor for wild food in the Pacific Northwest has created a growing appreciation for this native plant with the nasty reputation.

"I've known about nettles as edible for 10 years, but it still took me that long to try them," said Kate Humiston of Independence, co-owner of Full Circle Creamery. Humiston was one of Berg's nettle newbies.

"I followed the directions for cooking them I found online, and made a beautiful nettle copita ... it turned out really nice," Humiston said.

A primer:

Jeannie Berg

The stinging nettle is a perennial that can be found across Europe, Asia and North America. It's abundant in Oregon and the Pacific Northwest because of the rainfall and shady terrain.

Urtica dioica's common name comes from the hollow hairs that adorn its foliage and stems. These spines can pierce the skin and inject formic acid that causes a temporary burning sensation similar to a bee sting.

"They aren't a noxious weed," said Neil Bell, community horticulturist for the Oregon State University Extension Service. "They are noxious if you're rubbing them on bare skin."

You'll need gloves while harvesting nettles, of course. Once you soak, blanch, steam or saute them, they're completely safe and taste like spinach or other wilted greens.

They're also rife with vitamins and minerals, and have been considered an allergy and joint-pain treatment.

"I notice when I eat them, the body responds, you get this surge and just feel good," Berg said.

Nettles-for-food are harvested before they go to bloom in the spring. There's about a one- or two-month window that ends in May, depending on the weather, when they're most ideal for picking.

Photo by Pete Strong

While they are only ideal for eating during a one-to two-month window, stinging nettles are plentiful in the Pacific Northwest and nutrient-packed.

Nettles have been a historic food source for Native Americans and foragers. But it's the demand for local, wild and trendy food in Oregon that's boosting their popularity now.

Large farmers markets in Corvallis and Portland carry them. And the plant is commonly featured as an ingredient for dishes in upscale restaurants.

"There's this situation now where there's very urban and hip people eating nettles and rural people have been eating them for years," Berg said. "People in the middle don't really know about them ... yet."

Tim Mickelson, who sells native plants at his Oak Point Nursery near Independence, said customers have asked him for stinging nettles in the past, though almost exclusively for butterfly gardening.

"I've heard of it for food, but never had a request for it," said Mickelson, who noted he's actually cleared nettles from parts of his property to keep family members from getting stung.

Still, he's also experimenting with nettle seedlings that he'll try selling next month.

"I'll probably give them a try, but I want to make sure I'm cooking them right," he said. "I'm not enthusiastic about getting stung on the mouth."

Humiston said it takes a while to get over the perception that weeds growing around you are actually edible.

"And those of us who do know, it still takes time to acclimate," she said. "But once you do, it's like `OK, what kind of recipe for this can I find?'"



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