Nettles: Taste the Pain – Vanessa Shell

Stinging nettles: Urtica dioica

The first time we met was in a damp, shady patch surrounded by makeshift chicken-wire fencing, formerly a goat pen, now a veritable wild salad bar. Having been formally introduced by a friend, an ethnobotanist, and the steward of this parcel of land in North Central Florida, I knew to wear gardening gloves when I harvested nettles for soup; still, any haste on my part gave them a chance to make contact with an arm’s exposed skin, leaving burning pin-pricks whose intensity would undulate for the next few hours.

When cooked, flavor comparisons to spinach are inevitable; spinach is a ubiquitous cultivar. Nettles taste like green. They taste like all of dark green’s components: iron, chlorophyll, and the spectrum of particles we mysteriously call Vitamin A. One ounce of dried nettles steeped in a quart of boiling water overnight yields a nearly black infusion, a rich supplementary beverage. Famed herbalist Susun Weed suggests that two cups of this drink supply a body with its daily requisite nutrients and minerals. Uninitiated mouths may claim that it tastes “like dirt.”

The next time we met, I was enthusiastically barefoot and high. My feet, demanding their own sensory experience, led me to climb trees, scale the jagged rocks that support a creek bridge, and sprint to the single picturesque oak tree in a seemingly infinite stretch of cow pasture. Tromping in the moist grass around the base of the tree, my soles registered tingling bursts of electric sensation that resonated as chills up my legs; a lively feeling. Hours later and no longer aided by chemical enhancement, the resultant cuts and stings made walking in shoes uniquely uncomfortable.

A biodynamic cattle farmer in Florida told me that her young daughter learned to ask the plant’s permission and thereby avoid being stung, akin to Aesop’s fable “The Boy and the Nettle.” In western North Carolina, two friends and I on a performance tour slept in a guest bed beneath bunches of nettles hung up to dry. We woke up throughout the night, itching from the falling hairs and, come morning, discovering the source of our torture, we wondered whose cruel trick it had been. In a woodland bathhouse in Tennessee, after months of suffering a numb big toe, a friend suggested urticating the area on purpose to empirically test for nerve damage. Naked, I ran to the nearest patch and picked a handful. Massaging the toe vigorously with a specimen produced no result, nor did light whipping; but one graze across another toe offered the characteristic intermittent prickling. The physical contrast remains alarming.

Nettle infusion can sustain a seven-day fast, calm the immune response to seasonal allergies, and, in high enough quantities, induce menstruation. Years ago on a packed New York subway train, a young man inquired about the Mason jar of tea I carried. I smilingly divulged what I could in our one and a half minutes together. And years thereafter, a similar encounter on a MARTA platform led me to write this piece.

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