Whatever you do, don’t touch them. Stinging nettles will give you a painful, poison-ivy-like rash. Instead, consider eating this moisture-loving weed.
Rich in vitamin A, calcium, fiber, and more, stinging nettles, or Urtica dioica, are actually very good for you—as long as you don’t directly handle them while they’re uncooked.
Nettles are among the first wild leafy greens of spring. And they grow in abundance in the Pacific Northwest, home to many wild edible greens—from dandelions to watercress.
Be sure to wear gloves if you harvest nettles yourself. If you buy already-bagged nettles at a local farmers market, you can drop the contents right into a pot for steaming or boiling. Cooking destroys the hard-to-see hairs fraught with irritating chemicals on their leaves and stems. After that, you can treat nettles like cooked spinach. Puree them into soups or pesto. Make nettle tea.
Like most wild spring greens, nettles are best early in the season—when they’re most tender and mild. “Later in the season, you don’t want to eat the older leaves,” says Jim Freed, an Olympia-based Washington State University regional extension specialist emeritus of special forest products. “They’re very bitter.” In general, wild greens “aren’t bland. They all have distinct flavors—everything from lemony to very bitter and earthy.”
Before retiring three years ago, Freed used horticultural techniques to help landowners manage forest plants and also developed agroforestry practices with indigenous people around the world. Today, he advises foragers to consider their location before collecting wild greens.
“I tell people not to pick cattails where people are walking,” Freed says. “Find a nice, fresh site somewhere, and go to where the newer growth is, the young shoots. Also, avoid ditches that might have agricultural run-off. You don’t want to pick watercress, for example, where there’s run-off from the road or pesticides or herbicides.”
Ken Mudge (’80 PhD Hort.), professor emeritus of horticulture at Cornell University’s School of Integrative Plant Science, Section of Horticulture, and co-author of Farming the Woods, cautions against over-harvesting. “Some collectors will go into an area and strip it clean. They will pick all the plants of a particular species, slowing down generations of that plant in that area for years and years. Someone who has respect for the forest is going to harvest much less. You can really only pick five percent in a given area, in general, if you expect the plant population to be stable.”
Wild spring greens don’t keep long and are best as fresh as you can eat them. “They’re rather delicate,” Freed says. “They’re not like spinach or kale or chard, which can be stored and handled and shipped. These, once you pick them, often within a couple hours they don’t look very palatable.”
Watercress, or Nasturtium officinale, is often associated with high tea and crustless sandwiches. Don’t let its dainty leaves fool you; they pack a peppery punch. They’re also rich in vitamins A, C, and K. Look for watercress near ponds, shallow lakes, and slow-moving streams—and bring a zip-top bag. Freed suggests placing freshly cut stems in three or four ounces of water while continuing to forage. “They will last longer that way,” he says.
Miner’s lettuce, or Claytonia perfoliata, is as pretty as it is nutritious. A slender stem in the center of each leaf supports a spray of small, white flowers. Packed with vitamins A and C as well as iron, miner’s lettuce grows in abundance in California where it helped Forty-Niners stave off scurvy during the Gold Rush. It can also be found along mountain streams and moist, woodsy spots on either side of the Cascade Range. “You’ll find it growing under trees in the northeast corner of the state, where Idaho and Washington and Canada come together,” Freed says. “If you get it before it starts to bloom, there’s no bitterness to it; it’s almost lemony. It makes a fantastic salad mix with spring greens.”
The tightly furled tops of young ferns, or fiddleheads, also look pretty on a plate. These whimsical spirals offer a grassy flavor, sort of like green beans. While they’re a good source of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids and are high in fiber and iron, certain types—such as the ostrich fern, or Matteuccia struthiopteris—have caused gastrointestinal illness when not fully cooked. Blanch them before sautéing, stir-frying, or roasting with lemon and garlic or mushrooms. Serve them with creamy hollandaise sauce. “I treat it like asparagus,” Freed says.
Deeply rooted dandelions are one of a lawn-keeper’s biggest blights. Why fight them when you can eat them? Healthful and readily available—in some yards more than others—dandelions, or Taraxacum, are packed with nutrients. They’re rich in vitamins A, C, and K and are also good sources of calcium, iron, potassium, magnesium, and fiber. The leaves are spicy, reminiscent of arugula or mustard greens, and can be used in soups, salads, pesto, and pasta, or wilted with other greens. Their yellow blossoms brighten salads and can also be steeped into tea, baked into cookies, fermented into wine, or dipped into light beer batter, then fried to make fritters. Just don’t harvest them, Freed advises, from lawns or fields that have been treated with chemical fertilizer, pesticides, or weedkiller.
Purslane, or Portulaca oleracea, is so hardy it can be found growing in cracks in sidewalks. Its stalks and fleshy leaves, reminiscent of a young jade plant, are packed with omega-3 fatty acids and vitamins A and C. Verdolagas in Spanish, purslane is commonly paired with pork in Mexico, where it also often complements soups, stews, salsas, and salads. Raw purslane provides a crunchy, lemony tartness. Cooked, it makes for a simple side. Sauté it with garlic, olive oil, salt, and pepper, and finish it with a splash of fresh citrus.
Cattails, or Typha latifolia, grow where it’s wet—near ponds, marshes, lakes, rivers—and can help you survive in the wilderness. Dry stalks can be used to build a fire as well as shelter. The cigar-shaped heads can be used as torches. Parts of the plant are palatable, too. Just be sure to peel away the older plant material, “or it’s like eating cardboard,” Freed says.
The insides of fresh shoots can be sautéed and tossed with pasta or rice and other vegetables, or added to a stir-fry, pickled, or put into soups. While they’re still young and green, their corndog-like flowers can be cooked for a sort of marshy version of corn-on-the-cob. Their rhizomes can be processed into flour or roasted like a potato. “They take on the flavor of the soil in the area where they grow, and they grow in highly organic material. I always wash and scrape them before roasting them. Don’t leave any dirt on them,” Freed warns, “or they’ll taste like rotten mud.”
Of course, he notes, “if you add the right stuff to it”—butter, salt, pepper, WSU Everything Seasoning—“it all tastes good.”