Painfully Good for You
Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) has been used for thousands of years for a almost everything. Food, tea, medicine, rope, cloth, the dye to color that cloth; you name it, nettle has been used for it.
If you're going to try using stinging nettle, yourself, make sure you wear gloves! The name, Urtica comes from the latin word urere, meaning to burn. Touching stinging nettle results in a burning rash that can last for hours.
The hairs covering stinging nettles aren't hairs at all. They're tiny hollow needles of silica. When you brush against them, those needles break off and lodge in your skin, injecting you with histamine, acetylcholine, serotonin, formic acid, tartaric acid, and oxalic acid. This mix of chemicals causes a reaction that can include pain, itchiness, swelling, and redness.
SO WHY WOULD YOU EVER TRY PICKING IT!?!?
Stinging nettle has myriad medicinal uses. Studies have shown that nettle root can relieve some of the symptoms of an enlarged prostate. The leaves have been applied directly to the skin as a treatment for arthritis. An extract of the leaves has led to osteoarthritis patients lowering their NSAID dose.
Consumption of nettle has anecdotally been linked to lessening the symptoms of hay fever.
In addition to these medicines, nettle has been used to treat almost every illness or issue.
In order to prevent your insides from itching, stinging nettle must be cooked, dried, or steeped before you ingest it. If you are unsure why you shouldn't eat stinging nettle raw, please go back to the beginning and start reading from the top.
The leaves of stinging nettle make an excellent food source, especially in the early spring when it is just popping up. They contain iron, calcium, magnesium, potassium, beta-carotene, and lutein, as well as vitamins A, B, C, and K. You can sautee the leaves in place of spinach, make a tasty soup, or steep the leaves for a refreshing tea.
Try adding them to lasagna or pureeing them to help stretch a pesto!
Where and how to find them:
Whether you want to try them or just stay away, identifying stinging nettle is fairly simple. Just brush up against every plant you see, the one that hurts is the one you want! Or you can take a close look at the leaves and stem.
Rhubarb and burdock have a lot of similarities. Both pop up around the same time in the spring, both flower intermittently, both make huge leaves, both are called elephant ear, both are growing in the orchard, and both are edible. In fact, burdock is a little safer to eat than rhubarb which has a tasty stem, but toxic leaves. They have so many similarities, and one very important difference: burdock spreads and takes over way faster. Keep reading to learn more about these two look alikes.
"A Dessert Vegetable"
It sounds like an oxymoron, but the tart, fresh taste of rhubarb almost seems to have coevolved with vanilla ice cream. It cooks into a sauce, fills a nice pie, and can be made into bars.
But the possibilities for rhubarb only stop with your imagination. Try sauteing some with ramps and nettles and tossing with pasta, olive oil, and capers! Or use it instead of lemon juice to add some tartness to your hummus. Really, any time you think you might want some tartness, you might be able to add some rhubarb.
Despite how amazing it is in desserts, it hasn't been used for culinary purposes for all that long. The earliest recorded use of rhubarb is from about 5000 years ago in China where the root was historically used as a laxative. More recently, in ancient Rome and Greece, the dried root was used as an astringent. It wasn't until the 1800's that there are recordings of the plant being used for food in England. Perhaps that's due to the availability of sugar. The stems of the plant are extremely sour due to the high levels of malic and oxalic acid present in the plant.
Care and Cultivation
The rhubarb that we have in the orchard of the garden has been there for quite a while and is very well established. This means that we don't have to be quite as careful with it as we would if it was younger. However, there are still some things that help it live its best life:
How to Harvest
To make sure we keep our rhubarb healthy and happy, it's important to make sure that we're harvesting correctly.
The leaves of rhubarb are toxic to eat. You can cut them off directly into the compost before even taking them inside.
Burdock root, similar to rhubarb root is a widely used medicinal herb, particularly in traditional Chinese and Roman medicine. It has been used for centuries to basically cure what ails you, principally as a diuretic and a diaphoretic.
Burdock is native to Europe and Asia, and it thrives on disturbed soils. Because of its aggressive growth, ability to grow just about anywhere, and the massive root that it forms, burdock can quickly become a hard to control weed, blocking out other plants and taking over.
Burdock can be eaten though it takes a fair bit of preparation to make it tender enough to chew. It does make a pretty good dip, but really, just about anything floating in cheese will taste good.
For the balance of our garden and the success of all of our other plants, it's best to dig out burdock as much as possible.
Telling the difference between burdock and rhubarb
When young, the most obvious difference between the two plants, is burdock has hairy leaves and rhubarb leaves are smooth. This feature continues as the plants age, and in the mid summer, 2nd year burdock will begin to flower and set seeds.
Burdock seeds were the inspiration for Velcro, and if you've ever gotten burdock seeds in your clothes, hair, or pet's fur, it's easy to see why. Each one of those little hooks is attached to a seed that could grow a whole new plant - another reason why burdock is so good at taking over. It's ideal to get burdock out of the garden before it makes these seeds. But at the very least we can cut off the seeds and dispose of them.