Spring is Nettle Season!

I’m sure you’ve heard of nettles. There are two kinds I’m talking about here: Stinging Nettles (Urtica dioica) and Purple Dead Nettle (Lamium purpureum.) Both plants come up in your yard and fields in early to mid Spring, and both are edible and medicinal!

Dead nettles taste better before they flower…. honestly, most herbs in Spring time taste was better before they flower, when the greens are young and fresh. However, both types of “nettle” can be eaten raw, but better cooked, from about early April through mid-May.

I’m not going to go super extensively into every medicinal aspect of each herb here. As you know, I prefer to blog about my personal experiences with the herbs and how I work with them. There are dozens of places online (including the links above) where you can find detailed Materia Medica information on each herb.

I will tell you now that one of the primary things I work with nettles for (and that both of these plants make excellent remedies for) is Seasonal Allergies. You know… this time of year when the weather man is giving you “Pollen Level” alerts and you start seeing a yellow powdery coating on your car when you leave for work in the morning. The days when as soon as you step outside, your nose starts running and your eyes start to itch.

Everyone hates that part about Spring. But the plants have innate intelligence–Nettles knows that while all the trees are busy having tree sex (that’s where most of the pollen comes from,) it’s their time to show you how much they love and can help you! I’m trying to say that stinging nettle and dead nettle come up in spring as remedies to the allergic reactions all the other plants are giving your face.

I collect the tops of nettles and chop them up fresh to make a vodka-based tincture. A strong infusion also works well, as does the herb ground up and encapsulated (though I find you need at least 4 capsules a day, which seems like a lot compared to how little tincture is effective at staving off your sniffles.)

How to pick Stinging Nettle

I use this same method (seen above) to pick all my nettles. They make an amazing pesto too! Stinging nettle is a Nutritive herb, meaning it is full of minerals like iron, calcium, magnesium, vitamin K, and more! I add stinging nettle to any tea blend for a client that needs a boost to their nutrition; if you ingest enough of it it’s like eating the herbal equivalent to a multivitamin.

One final thing about Stinging Nettle is that its seeds are purported to be the BEST kidney and urinary tract tonic in existence! A good point to remember if you know anyone suffering with kidney disease. I just wish I could figure out the trick to harvesting nettle seeds…

Purple Dead Nettle isn’t quite as nutritive, but it still has a lot of similar amazing properties and is a plant worth working with, especially if you can’t find a patch of stinging nettles. You can use it as a green vegetable (just like throwing kale in your stir fry or smoothie) or create a medicinal tincture with it as well. The leaves are slightly fuzzy and soft, and the flavor is more bland than that of stinging nettles. But it’s still got more vitamins in it than most commercial greens!

The last time I got sick (the kids brought home a virus from school) I took my wobbly butt out to the back yard and picked a basket of stinging nettles, chickweed, dandelion greens (this was April so they were still tasty,) and wild onions. I went back into the house and steamed the stinging nettles (a practice I highly recommend before eating them, as it takes their “sting” out) and threw everything into the food processor along with a little lemon juice, some olive oil, grated parmesan cheese, and a small handful of black walnuts. Then I boiled some gluten-free pasta up, added my pesto, and ate a big bowl of it!

I’m not joking when I say this: I ate this meal around noon time, on a day I was feeling woozy and my head was spinning every time I stood up and walked around. By 5pm I was right as rain! Stinging nettles are no joke, man…

Do you need help foraging for wild foods and medicines? Why not schedule a Foraging Walk with me today?

Black Walnuts!

If you live anywhere in the Eastern or Central United States, you have probably seen a black walnut tree. Black walnuts (juglans nigra) grow from New England through Wyoming and are wildly prolific. Just try digging up a sapling somewhere… they root in like a badass and if you don’t want that tree to grow in that spot, you’ll be facing a years-long battle to get it to go away.

Black walnut

I have four black walnut trees in my yard, thankfully all positioned around the chicken and duck coops out back. They provide much-needed shade and shelter for the birds, and it doesn’t matter that nothing else will grow underneath them back there because the birds just tear it all up anyway. That’s right– if you want to purposefully plant and grow a black walnut, plan on being lucky if grass grows underneath the fully mature trees, let alone anything else. The roots of the tree emit a substance called juglone, which stunts the growth of other plants in the area. Basically, black walnut trees are selfish bastards.

Black walnut leaves and the hulls of the nuts are one of the best known vermifuges available in wildcrafting. That means if you get worms, you can help expel the parasites in your body with the tincture or infused vinegar made from those ingredients (a tea made from the leaves can help too.) The catch is that the active components are only active while the husk of the nut is still green. So buying this compound dried is pretty useless.

Black walnut trees tend to create a mast crop of nuts every 2-3 years, so some years, even if you have a big tree, you won’t really see any nuts. That’s totally fine by me, since the damned squirrels eat more than half my nuts even in a good year. I still need to catch and eat one of those furry little turds one of these days…

In early spring, I tried tapping my trees for syrup for the first time ever. Unless you happen to have a whole grove of these trees at your disposal, I would not recommend you bother tapping them. Out of four trees only one produced any usable amount of sap, and once it was boiled down it was thin and runny and equaled maybe 1/4 cup out of what had been a gallon of liquid. In my experience it was not worth it, and tapping the tree can result in a reduced nut harvest so I’m not going to bother doing that again.

This year happened to be a mast year for my trees, and I set to collecting bucket loads of them starting in early October. Earlier in the season, when the nuts were still small, I crafted a batch of nocino, a liqueur that now smells absolutely heavenly and I need to start tasting. I also made a big batch of natural poultry de-wormer using the green walnut hulls that I had cut off the nuts along with wormwood, mugwort, raw garlic, and raw apple cider vinegar. This is still macerating on the counter, and will be added to the birds’ water by the tablespoonful several times over the course of the winter, when intestinal parasites like to strike.

Anyway, my pro tip for you if you are going to harvest black walnuts is to a.) wear gloves because the walnuts stain your hands dark brown and b.) start cutting the hulls off when still green, because the black ones are super gross and slimy and often full of bugs. You just need a small sharp paring knife and a few buckets.

Cutting black walnut hulls off. Yes, I wear flip flops until it’s basically snowing

Here’s the process using 5 gallon sized buckets:

One bucket full of walnuts you picked up off the ground (don’t pluck them off the tree)

One empty bucket for hulls/junk

One bucket filled at least halfway with water

A lawn chair and hours of time on your hands listening to a podcast or something

Sit in your chair and put gloves on. Pick up a walnut from the full bucket. Hold that in one hand and use opposite hand to cut a cross X around the nut. Use fingers to pry the sections off and toss into empty bucket (keep some to use for tincture or de-wormer but you will have PLENTY.) Then toss the inner nut into the bucket of water. If it floats, it’s a bad nut and you can just toss it in the junk bucket. If it sinks, leave it for now because you’ll collect the good ones later. The nuts that sink are good to eat… black gold nuggets, if you will.

I am totally destroying this old window screen and need a new one now

Once your bucket of nuts is empty, dump the nut hulls in the woods or somewhere that you don’t want anything else to grow. It’s almost as effective as salting the earth. Your water bucket (which is now full of scary black water) you can dump slowly over the top of an old window screen (or build a screen with find hardware cloth) and spread the nuts out, preferably in the sun or someplace warm and dry. If you bring them indoors, make sure they stay dry and don’t get moldy. That means if you put them in your basement (like I did) you need to keep the dehumidifier running or start your wood stove so the nuts can cure properly.

After about 3 weeks, you can crack a nut open to see if it’s ready to eat yet. If you don’t have time and need to let them sit longer, they’ll still be good for a few months yet, so no need to rush. It’ll give you something constructive to do indoors in January when you hate the world and all of it’s icy death winds. The first year I cracked walnuts, I sat on the cold basement floor with a big rock, a hammer, and an old towel. I would set the nut on the rock, hold the towel over the top so shards didn’t go flying everywhere, and hit it with the hammer. Then I’d use my little picker thingy to pull the nut meat out. This does work, but it’s hard on your butt and takes for freaking ever.

I bought a black walnut cracker, which Nik very nicely attached to some old boards as a little table so I can use my body weight to counter the force that’s required to press down on the lever. Some people tell you to run the walnuts over with your car to crack them, but I honestly think that’s a dumb idea; not only is it unreliable, but even if it works, your tires are going to shoot nuts all over the neighborhood and probably kill a cat or something. Anyway, here’s a video clip of me cracking a nut:

Using the black walnut cracker for the first time

Black walnuts are F*CKING DELICIOUS. The holy grail of nuts, in my opinion. These are especially tasty to me probably because of all the hard work I put into getting them, but even commercially-purchased black walnuts are crazy expensive. Now you know why!

Just yesterday I cracked a few nuts and toasted them, and made myself a big jar of black walnut extract. It has to sit for two months, but it’s a delicious addition to cakes, cookies, and the occasional iced coffee I will drink. The nuts themselves are great in baked goods or just eaten as a snack. They are super nutritious and worth every ounce of effort I put into harvesting them.

Toasted black walnut extract

Have you ever eaten a black walnut? I might be willing to sell some of my harvest over the winter, if you ask me nicely. Or if you want to come help me crack them…

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Cleavers is Galium, but not all Galium is Cleavers

That title statement may not mean much to you unless you’re into herbs or foraging, but Cleavers are a common herbal remedy in much of North America and the UK. For the past two years, I have been operating under the exciting assumption that cleavers had graced me with their presence in my back yard and gardens. I encouraged its growth in my gardens and made a deal with the plant that I wouldn’t weed it out as long as it let me pick some to work with it as medicine and food. I was so excited to know that such a great medicinal plant had decided to call my place home!

I was wrong.

THIS is actual “Cleavers,” Galium Aparine

After crying internally and smacking myself repeatedly for my mistake, I am now in a forgiving mood. You see, there are over 600 species of Galium in the world, at least 60 of which are native or naturalized in the United States. I was positive what is in my yard was a galium, and after a little sleuthing and help from some people in a Facebook plant identification group, I have concluded that what I have in my yard is Galium Mollugo, a naturalized but not native variety that likely traveled over from Europe with other immigrants such as Dandelion and Plantain.

Galium Mollugo I have been seeing
This is the galium I’ve seen at my farm. Note the NON-Hairy stem

Galium Mollugo, a.k.a. “Hedge bedstraw,” is what has popped up all over my yard and farm. It’s so named because it smells really nice when dried, so was added to the old style beds that were basically mattresses stuffed with straw. Much nicer to sleep on something that smells more pleasant than the cow barn! It is an edible weed that I frequently add to stir-fry’s and omelets, and makes a lovely tea when used fresh. I usually tincture it fresh as well, for use as a lymphatic cleansing agent and nervine.

Fortunately for me, it seems that most galium species can be used interchangeably in a medicinal fashion. The only one to be slightly wary of is Sweet Woodruff, but I also have that planted in the yard on purpose because of its wonderful scent, so I’m much more positive about that identification. Sweet Woodruff is not meant to be ingested in large amounts due to the compound that makes it smell so nice, Coumarin. You can still use it in a tea or whatever, just not frequently or a lot of it.

I prefer to work with regular cleavers anyhow, and save my sweet woodruff for incense making purposes. Well… with my galium mollugo anyway…. which I’ve been working with thinking it was cleavers for like 3 years now…

At any rate, I wanted to share this post because while I pride myself on my ever-growing foraging skills, I’m definitely not infallible. Hopefully with the photos included here you can understand why I made the mistaken identification, and thankfully the entire species is a safe herb to work with. Don’t forget that it’s very important to double and even triple-check your identification of any wild plant before you eat it!

Favorite Herb This Week: Black Birch!

Black Birch (betula lenta) is definitely one of my Top Ten favorite herbs of all time. And luckily for me, it’s ALL OVER the place here in Northeastern Connecticut!

A young black birch I saw on my walk today

Black birch and it’s brother, White birch (also known as the Paper Birch) can pretty much be used interchangeably medicinally speaking, so I have been trying to only work with black birch trees because the white birch are kind of endangered due to the bronze birch borer and a condition called birch dieback (Source). Birch trees can be tapped in the early spring to collect their sap (a great drink in and of itself) in order to make birch syrup, and the inner bark can be harvested to make a flour substitute, though I would only ever try this on a recently fallen or cut tree.

See the horizontal lines in the bark, along with the light/white patches?

It is never recommended that you harvest bark directly from the trunk of the tree, as doing so could accidentally girdle it and cause it to die. Instead, ask the plant’s permission to harvest a branch or two and simply prune them off if it tells you it’s okay. Always leave an offering for the tree, such as a pinch of tobacco or kinnickkinnick, or a few pieces of your hair in way of thanks. Then take them home and carefully strip the bark off each section of branch, being sure to capture the cambium layer. You can also add the buds to your concoction.

Harvesting and scraping bark is always done in late winter or early spring, hence the ugly sweatshirt

My absolute favorite thing to make with birch bark is an infused oil. Some of my birch oil jars have sat for months before I remembered to strain them, but it always works out as the batch just gets even stronger. Add a few drops of birch essential oil and voila! You have the BEST topical painkiller for muscle and joint aches. I think this year I will try making a small batch of tincture as well, as I hear that is useful internally for joint pain. I’ve had arthritis since my early 20s and farming really hurts my back some days, so every little thing I can find to relieve the pain helps!

Birch buds in January

Black birch twigs are useful as fire starters, and fresh twigs can be chewed by adults as a breath freshener and by toddlers to help relieve teething pain.

What do you think? Do you ever work with birch bark? Remember, I can sell you some of the oil I make if you’d like to experience birch’s magical healing properties!