The Wild Flavour of Nettles

By Cinda Chavich

If you’re like most woodland walkers, you know it’s wise to steer clear of stinging nettles. By midsummer, these prodigious perennials can tower more than five feet tall, and their stinging hairs can be quite problematic for hikers. But in early spring, young, tender nettles offer a forager’s feast.

Nettles are some of the first plants to push up through the leaf litter of the forest floor in March and April. The wet regions of Vancouver Island (and neighbouring Gulf Islands) are prime nettle territory. You’ll find them along ravines and roadsides, often in areas where the soil has been disturbed. 

Nettles are not only very tasty, they are medicinal marvels, used in folk medicine to treat hay fever allergies, arthritis and eczema. Rich in vitamin C, calcium and other nutrients, nettles are even a good source of protein. So it’s not surprising they are the darling of locally minded Island chefs.

After a foraging trip near his Deerholme Farm, chef Bill Jones serves up stinging nettle pesto, rich miso and nettle soup, and nettle gomae — barely blanched and chilled stinging nettle tops dressed in soy sauce, sesame oil and sweet mirin and sprinkled with white sesame seeds.

At the House of Boateng in Langford, chef Castro Boateng blends nettles into the green hollandaise drizzled over his Hippy Benny. 

Nettles are so prized in these parts that they are celebrated at the annual Community Nettlefest Celebration on Galiano Island with nettle cooking classes, foraging walks and even a nettle potluck dinner, with an award for the most creative and delicious dish.

The CRD offers guided walks through many regional parks. Reed Osler is the education coordinator for the Galiano Conservancy Association, and I met her among towering old-growth trees to learn more.

Along the Elsie King interpretive trail, Osler points out these common plants, with their square, hairy stems and sharply serrated leaves. Always wear gloves to harvest nettles, snapping off the tips and the first leaves, or trimming tops with scissors, she says. Leave older plants behind — they’ll make you sick — and only forage the new growth in spring. Foraging for nettles in CRD parks is not allowed, so confine your nettle hunting to private or Crown land (always ask for permission). 

Back in the park’s cozy nature centre, I learn that the nettle’s stinging hairs are rendered safe to consume by drying or steaming. Because the hairs are on the underside of the leaves, you can also roll up a leaf like a burrito, tucking the hairs inside, and chew it up. 

“As long as all of the hairs are folded inside you can eat nettles raw — their own juices will neutralize the sting,” says Osler, bravely popping a square packet into her mouth.

If you’re accidentally stung by nettles, you may feel itchy pain for hours or days. Some recommend dock leaves, antihistamine creams or calamine to calm the sting, but you might just need to tough it out.

Or get even — with a little nettle pesto for your pasta!