Most herbalists know of the nutritive value of nettles (Urtica species). We harvest them in spring and early summer, cook them in soup, or dry them to make dark, rich overnight infusions that replenish and revitalize. I was first introduced to nettles when I was young, at my grandmother’s house where they grew wild. Since then I’ve found them growing almost everywhere: on the rocky slopesides of Vermont’s Smuggler’s Notch, in the lowlands by the lakeside, all across Europe and North America. But nowhere have I seen nettles like Urtica massaica, the species that grows near water in the highlands of Tanzania
We are working at a local hospital, on the edge of the Serengeti just west of the Rift Valley. This is the land of the Maasai, who herd cattle all day, generally eat meat and some grains (no vegetables), and live in far-flung bomas far from modern healthcare. This is generally fine – but in some cases, such as after protracted childbirth or long-standing illness, members of the community arrive at the hospital with profound anemia. We have routinely seen hemoglobin levels of 4, 5, and 6 – normal being 12 or 13 – and while some are lucky enough to receive blood transfusions, this is the exception, rather than the rule. Their tongues are quite pale but we also see characteristic dark purple splotching in the more severe cases – often along the edges. In these situations, we really see that stinging nettles aren’t just a nutritive tonic: they deserve to be considered alongside all the “superfoods” that make headlines today.
There are many ways to prepare nettles. In all cases, start with some good gloves to protect your fingers during harvest! The local slang name for this plant is “washawasha”, which means “itchy-itchy”, and for good reason: U. massaica has stinging hairs (trichomes loaded with a complex venom, similar to bee venom) that can be over an inch long, thickly covering the stem and the upper and lower surfaces of all the leaves. It can grow over six feet tall, and cover wide areas by the river. Once you harvest the tops, remove the leaves from the stems (the latter are quite fibrous and not as nutritive, though they can make good cordage). The leaves can be cooked in soup, much as you would spinach, or they can be juiced by mixing 3-4 handfuls of fresh leaves with a cup of water in a blender. Blend these until they are a rich, foamy green, then strain through a fine mesh or through cheesecloth. This juice must be drunk the day it is made, or it will quickly ferment. Patients at the hospital take about 1 and ½ cups throughout the day as a supplement to the rice and beans they receive from the canteen. Over a week to ten days, you can really see the results in the form of increased vitality and better color! If you have a freezer, you can preserve the juice long-term. But another option is to dry the leaves in the sun: these can then be powdered and the powder taken, in doses of two to four heaping spoonfuls a day, as a supplement to any meal.
Recently, researchers at Virginia State University analyzed the nutritional content of nettles, and compared the spring-harvested leaves to those gathered in the fall. While both were quite nutritive, spring leaves had a higher protein, fat, iron, calcium, carotenoids, vitamin A, and vitamin C. And the best processing method to maximize nutritive value was a light blanching – just thrown into the pot of soup at the last second before eating. So whether you live in Tanzania (where we’re working on incorporating the abundant nettles into a standard hospital regime), or ranging the wilds across North America, think of this protein-rich superfood before other exotic, expensive blends: even in the most profound cases of depletion, it renews vitality like few other plants.