Nettles and Roses

The first roses of the season are opening into the warm springtime sun, staining the air with their fragrance. Rhubarb awakens from a dormant knot beneath the soil sending up edible stalks of brightest crimson and wide, poisonous leaves as big as serving plates. Contradictions and juxtapositions, sweetness and thorns, poison and pleasure. Know, or learn, what to harvest and what to discard, what to respect and what to be wary of. (Even common garden plants like tomato and potato can be dangerous, if we ingest the wrong parts of the plant.) Most of us, however, know better. Practicing such discernment, we hope to remain hale, healthy, and unscathed; perhaps, even, more daringly, we hope to dazzled by beauty, or beguiled by rare or forbidden flavors. See: this week's featured syrup, which is an exquisite shade of brightest pink, sweet and tart and floral, utterly unique among beverages.

Oxalic acid is the dangerous component of rhubarb leaves, but you'd have to eat several pounds of rhubarb leaves to achieve any lasting ill-effect. The thorns of a rosebush, however, are more than just a metaphor or a mild caution; their tips can contain a fungus called Sporothrix schenckii, which can cause swelling, redness, and even infection at the puncture site. In some cases, the fungus can spread to the lymphatic system, even moving into the joints and bones, where it can end up attacking the central nervous system. Something to be wary of, when we reach for the iconic flowers, beckoning from atop their protected stems. A wound from a rose can sometimes be more than a mere annoyance.

In the early days of spring, the roadsides and watersides are populated by another fierce ally; Urtica dioica ssp gracilis, more commonly known as stinging nettle. The word nettle comes from the Anglo-Saxon word "noedl", meaning needle, and the Latin name "urtica" means "to burn". (The subspecies term "gracilis" simply means "slender".) Both of these needling, burning associations refer to the stinging sensation that even brief contact with the plant creates. This topical response is created by the action of tiny hairs on the stems and leaves of the nettle plant, which are known as trichomes. When the trichomes come in contact with skin, the tips of the trichomes break off, piercing the skin with tiny, sharp, needle-like tubes, which inject a tiny amount of fluid that contains formic acid, which is the same chemical found in ant and bee stings, as well as assorted other chemicals such as histamine and serotonin. Once beneath the surface of the skin, these chemicals cause raised, red, itchy bumps that can last for more than a day. But there's more to this plant than the pain it can engender; nettles are rich in vitamins A, C, D, E, F, K, and P, as well as vitamin B-complexes, and minerals selenium, zinc, iron, and magnesium. Nettles taste like a delicious wild substitute for spinach, and even the itchy rash can be used as a way to bring blood flow to areas of the body affected by arthritis and injury. The act of flogging oneself with nettles is called "urtication" and, while the uninitiated may wince to see it performed, it can be a wonderfully restorative practice. This is the best season to gather nettles, to steam and eat fresh or dry for use in teas. The color of nettle tea is wonderful, a deep, rich, emerald blue-green.

Lately, I have been burying my face to breathe in the smell of early blooming roses, and slapping my farm-weary wrists with nettles that grow on the banks of the dwindling creek. I taste brilliant pink rhubarb in a soda glass, or in a pie baked with the season's first red berries. I carry hay to mound over potato vines, heaping and tucking it around the tender, lumpy roots. Over and over, embodying and embracing the contradictions of this life, the flower and the thorns, the poison and the medicine. Over and over, heaping gratitude like hay in great golden mounds upon the earth and the sustenance it provides. Heaping gratitude upon the ancestors that came before, who discovered what was fit to eat and what was to be avoided. Thanks to them, we know what is for medicine and what is for beauty and what is, sometimes, a beguiling combination of all these elements.

By Jessica Tunis

A note here, for your wildcrafting safety; Please be sure of your identification and do not forage for wild foods unless you are an expert at plant identification.