Squamish Language: ts’exts’ix
Range: Stinging nettle is found growing in abundance from Alaska, through British Columbia as far south as Oregon.
Habitat: Found growing in rich, moist soil along streams, rivers, meadows and open forest. This plant thrives in disturbed habitats such as village sites, roadsides and barnyards.
Parts of plant used: New spring shoots and leaves
What you need to harvest ts’exts’ix: Gloves, scissors or clippers, basket or cloth ba
Warning: **Do not harvest nettles for food or tea once they have flowered as they develop gritty particles called cystoliths that can irritate the urinary tract.
Stinging nettle is a nutritious spring green that has many uses, and once identified, may become a staple for your spring foraging. This plant is a perennial and grows as tall as 5-8 feet at maturity. The stem is usually less than 1cm in diameter and the coarsely saw-toothed leaves are lance shaped to oval and have a pointed tip and a heart shaped base. The leaves are found growing in opposite pairs along the stalk.
The leaves and stem have stinging hairs that contain formic acid and can cause a stinging reaction when they come in contact with the skin; thus, many people opt to wear gloves when harvesting. Cooking or drying destroys the stinging properties, this includes; drying nettles for tea, sautéing, steaming or baking.
Stinging nettles are best harvested for eating when the young shoots are less than a foot tall and still have a purple tinge to the leaves. They are at their most tender then. They can continue to be harvested beyond this height but they do get more fibrous as they grow and eventually will be too tough to eat. **Do not harvest nettles once they have flowered as they develop gritty particles called cystoliths that can irritate the urinary tract.
Nettles are rich in vitamins A and C as well as in minerals including calcium, potassium, magnesium and iron. They are a delicious alternative to any recipe that calls for spinach and can be added to soups and stir-fry’s for added nutrition and vibrant color. The leaves can also be dried and used to make a healthy and hearty tea. Stinging nettle can be used as a bath to help with rheumatism and the mature plant can be processed to make strong cordage. Many coastal First Nations, including Squamish, used this cordage to make strong fish nets and fishing line.
The origins of this plant are not certain. It is likely that Uritca dioica was brought here from England long ago but there were also species of Urtica native to Canada that hybridize readily with Urtica dioica. The food uses and plant properties are identical.
The Squamish name for stinging nettle, ts’exts’ix, comes from the root word ts’ix meaning singed or burned. Chum (Ronald) Newman has told me that the stinging indicates the power and medicine in this plant. He has used the fresh plant to sting himself on his arthritic joints to help with pain. He believes that the local sting from the nettle increases blood flow and helps with swelling and pain.
Squamish People know that when the stinging nettle is a few inches tall this marks when the baby seals are born. This is an example of the deep connection that develops between people and their natural environments over thousands of years being spent out on the land.
Happy Harvesting! See below for a nettle pesto recipe and how to dry nettle for tea.
Nettle Pesto Recipe
This is a basic pesto recipe with nettles as a substitute for basil. Because blanched nettles will not oxidize and turn brown easily you can store this pesto in the fridge for up to a week.
Total Time 20 minutes
Produces 1 cup, feel free to double or triple the recipe based on the amount of nettles you have after they are blanched.
3 cloves garlic
2 generous tablespoons toasted pine nuts
2 tablespoons grated cheese
2/3 cup blanched,
Salt to taste
Olive oil (see instructions below)
- To blanche nettles, bring a large pot of water to a boil, place the nettles in batches into the water for 1-2 minutes, after that immediately immerse the nettles in an ice water bath. Then strain the nettles and dry them with a salad spinner or paper towel. Tip: You can use the water that was used to boil the nettles as a healthy chilled drink or use it as a base for a soup stock, or even cool it and pour it in your garden!
2. Pulse toasted pine nuts in the food processor or high powered blender.
3. Add the garlic, salt, cheese and nettles and run the machine so everything combines, but isn’t a smooth paste, you want it with some texture.
4. Start adding olive oil. Drizzle it in a little at a time until you have the consistency you want.
Now your pesto is ready to be put into clean jars and stored in the fridge or used right away on your favourite dish!
Drying Nettle for Tea
You can harvest the plant the same way, use gloves and scissors to clip the nettles, make sure to harvest in an area that you know is clean. Don’t harvest along highways, under hydro lines or other areas where chemicals may be used. The reason this is so important is you do not want to wash the nettles you are going to dry or tea.
The reason for this is that if you wash them there is a higher chance they will mould.
Take your clean and dry nettles and bundle them together, take an elastic and put it tightly around the stems. Hang the bundle from a string in a cool dry and dark place and wait for them to be completely dry. The reason you don’t want to do this in the sun is that you might loose some of the potency of the plant with sun drying.
After they are dry, take them and remove the leaves, the stinging will be gone now. Compost the stems and save the leaves in a cool and dark place. Storing them in a glass jar, paper bag or other storage container is great and you can keep them in the fridge or freezer as well to maintain freshness. You can also use a coffee grinder (preferably one that hasn’t been used for coffee as the taste will get into the nettles) and pulse them into smaller pieces.
When making nettle tea you can fill a tea ball or add 2 table spoons to a small pot and steep for 5-10 minutes then strain and enjoy. The tea can help with inflammation and as a general tonic for maintaining health. Nettle tea can also help reduce the symptoms of hay fever.