Finding something to eat in the wilderness can be a taxing problem if you don’t know what you’re doing. Same goes for your hero. Whether you’re writing fantasy, a historical, or a modern-day story set in the woods, your hero needs to know what he can eat and what to avoid. Today’s plant is the stinging nettle. Like the cattails, the nettle is extremely versatile, so let’s dig into it.
(photo courtesy of freephotos.net)
Your protagonist should use caution when harvesting this plant or wear gloves. It has stinging hairs on its leaves and stem (hence the name) that act like little hypodermic needles, injecting toxins into whatever brushes up against it. The reaction is a nasty rash. I encountered many of these growing up, and while the rash hurts for a couple of days, it’s not dangerous to your health unless you’re allergic that that particular toxin. Therein lies a nice subplot, I think…
Once the plant flowers, don’t eat them. The leaves develop gritty particles that can lead to internal plumbing problems. So harvest should take place in early spring. Boiling the leaves for 10 minutes clears the toxins from the leaves and they can be eaten like any other green leafy vegetable. I’m thinking smothered in butter and salt, but that’s just me. I’m told they taste like a mix between spinach and cucumber. They are full of vitamins and protein, and could save a character’s life after a hard, lean winter. Dried leaves can be used to make tea or as seasoning for stews, rice, or cheese. The leaves will also make a nice cordial or beer for those after-dinner moments of relaxation. The nice thing about this plant is that they are numerous–your hero shouldn’t have any trouble finding massive patches of this wonderful plant.
Once the nettles are no longer edible, they have other uses. The stock is fibrous, and soaking the plant will looses those fibers. Pull them apart, weave them together, and your character has rope for fishnets, snares, tent-line, clothes line, etc.
The nettle also has medicinal uses. (Again, I am not a physician, so don’t try these on yourself just on my word. Research it–a lot–if you feel the need to self-medicate). Nettle can help relieve the pain of sore muscles, arthritis, and rheumatism. Shampooing with nettle can help get rid of dandruff. Male protagonists might drink a nettle root extract to help with prostate problems. Allergy sufferers might give nettle a try, as it offers some relief from hay fever. Some say nettles may lower blood sugar and blood pressure, but that one might be a rumor. I read it off the internet.
Stinging nettles might not sound like a treat to those of us accustomed to the Safeway produce department, but any character living off the land will rejoice when this plant pops up each spring.