My Experience and Thoughts on Stinging Nettles

For years I have heard of the nutritional qualities of Stinging Nettles, and that they are actually delicious.

Wood and Stinging Nettles

Wood Nettles and Stinging Nettles (Stinging in foreground, Wood Nettles in back)

I have been leery of trying them though; they are Stinging Nettles, the plant that has caused me so much irritation since I was a kid playing in the woods.  Recently I have given them a try, and I have to say that I was quite impressed with their flavor and edibility.  They are high in vitamins A and C, rich in minerals, and also high in protein; yes, nettles are a leafy vegetable and are high in protein!

I have recently learned that there are two types of stinging nettles in our area that I can choose from.  The Stinging Nettle and the Wood Nettle.  I tried both. The Wood Nettles prefer shady areas, while the Stinging Nettles like the sun.

Stinging Nettles

Stinging Nettles

Above is a picture of these two types of nettles together.

Wood Nettle

Wood Nettle

I sautéed each type of Nettle in butter, and I found both the texture and the flavor of the Wood Nettle to be superior to the Stinging Nettle.  The Stinging Nettles were good, just not as soft of a texture and a little bit of bitterness.  The Wood Nettle was delicious, with a texture like cooked spinach and a flavor that I like better than spinach.

For picking nettles I recommend wearing gloves; if the plant barely touches sensitive skin it will cause irritation and itching.  I tried picking both varieties without gloves, and Stinging Nettle would get me more often.

Wood Nettle Picked

Wood Nettles can be carefully picked without gloves

This plant has little stingers from the beginning of the stem up into the leaves, and they are hard to avoid.  The wood nettle, however, is more picking friendly, and can even be carefully harvested without gloves.  The lower parts of the young stem are free of stingers.  A person can carefully break them off here, and avoid getting stung.  If the top part of the plant touches sensitive skin though, the stinging can be worse than that of the Stinging Nettle.

I picked about a half of a large paper grocery bag of each nettle; when cooked, this amount would make an appropriate side dish for my family of four.

The Stinging Nettle I am finding now are a little too mature for harvesting, and would be a little bitter.  The Wood Nettle, however, are at a perfect stage in many parts of my woods.

I will end this post with my final concussion; do not be afraid of Stinging Nettles or Wood Nettles, they are delicious and definitely worth harvesting.

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Morel Hunting Tips

I am getting ready to head out again this morning but thought I would add a few tips for finding morels this early in the season.

Four Morels

First, I am finding them on south-facing wooded slopes that have been getting some sunshine (not hidden from the sun behind other hills or dense woods.)  This can be a very slight slope, or steep.  Even a ditch or small valley that runs east to west will do.  Look for dead or dying elm trees (the wood beneath the thin gray bark is almost white), and some ground cover of leaves, brush, and dead wood.  Apple trees can also be good hosts to morels, as well as some poplar and pines.

Dead Elm Tree

Dead Elm Tree

Pay close attention to the bases of trees and around bushes, dead leaves, brush, and decomposing wood.  If you find a morel, keep searching the area, being careful not to step on any others.  Where there is one there is usually more.  Sometimes I find a morel, then search where I had just been and find more.  Looking from different angles can help to find them; they are often peeking from beneath leaves and fallen bark.

Dead Elm Tree

Dead Elm Tree

Sometimes getting low to the ground helps and other times you can get another perspective by standing on a fallen tree.

When I find a dead or dying tree, I search to a radius of 15 to 20 feet around the tree very slowly.  The colony of mycelium is growing from the decaying roots of the tree which will extend farther out than the trees branches did.  You will often be surprised where you find morels.  If there are many elm trees present, they could be anywhere.

Dead Elm Tree before losing bark

Dead Elm tree before losing its bark

If you happen upon a tree that looks like this, slow down and step very carefully.  This dead Elm still has most of its bark, so it hasn’t been dead long; around trees such as these are some of the best places to find morels.  Sometimes I just stand in one spot for minutes, looking all around me.  I lean to see around obstructions and carefully lift branches and leaves with my stick.  I’ll look from up high and from down low, then take a couple of steps and repeat the process.

Sometimes you can see white branches sticking through the canopy of the woods.  These are often elm trees that haven’t been dead for real long, and provide a good chance for finding morels.

Branches of a dead Elm tree

Top branches of a dead Elm tree

 

Morel Season Begins in Southern Minnesota

There may be a slow-down in the frequency of my posts for the next few weeks; it appears that morel season has begun, and I cannot resist the call to trek the hills.  I checked one of my early spots yesterday on my way to pick the kiddos up from school, and was delighted to find one.  The kids and I stopped back at the spot and rustled up nearly a pound of nice little grays, my favorites.  These little guys can be hard to see peeking through the dried leaves, and I was glad to have the young eyes along.  It was so much fun!

I have been taking pictures of some of the other early spring foragables in our area, the fiddleheads and stinging nettles, and gathering some too.  It was cloudy and dark the day that I photographed fiddleheads, and the pictures didn’t turn out too well.  I am hoping to see a few more at picking stage, and will get more photos when I do.  Even though morel season has begun, I still intend to write about fiddleheads and nettles, but it is hard to resist the call of the morels.

Ramps and Morels are plentiful in our area, and easy to identify, but always be careful that you know what you are collecting before consuming anything.  I strongly recommend getting a quality field guide to assist you in identification and to show plants and fungi that can be confused with the edible you are out to collect.  As far as ramps go, if they look like the photos I have posted, break one, and if it smells like onion, it is a ramp.

There are many ramps in the area in which I live, and maybe you have quite a few in your area too.  It is important to harvest responsibly to maintain a good supply of these wild onions for us and for the wildlife into the future.  I am taking only part of a patch that I find, and I will be collecting seeds to spread around.

Daybreak is here now and the hills are calling.

Tips for Finding and Harvesting Ramps (Wild Leeks)

This has been some strange weather so far this year.Early Morels  Due to unusually warm temperatures in March, I was climbing hills very early in search of the first morel mushrooms of the season. Some friends of mine found a few, but tiny ones, and it was enough to lure me into the woods weeks ahead of the usual schedule.  But, the warm weather was followed by cool and dry, and now, two weeks later, no new morels have been found.

As I have mentioned before, I just love being in the woods and surrounded by nature, and morel season is my favorite part of the year.   When morels are around, I am scaling my surrounding hills and ravines from morning to night, and it can be grueling physically.  Normally, the ramps and fiddleheads show up around the same time as morels, and I could pick some as I hunt mushrooms if I really wanted to, but I never have, since it would slow down my morel hunt.  This year is different.  I am collecting ramps and fiddleheads while daydreaming about morels.  This way I figure that I will notice when morel season is starting, and at the same time I will be getting in shape for the hunt.

Once I started looking for ramps, I was surprised at how many there were to be found.group of rampsAt our Easter gathering, I stepped out behind my uncle’s garage to find my first ramp.  Ten feet away was another, then another.  I dug out a half dozen or so with my fingers (not recommended), cleaned a few off, and tried some raw.  They were strong and very tasty. Later that day I found one just thirty feet from my house, and from that one I could follow a trail of them up a wooded hillside.  These things are everywhere!Ramps (wild leeks)

Here are some useful tips for collecting some ramps for yourself:

First, make sure to bring some gloves and a small garden shovel.  Next, find a shady wooded area and carefully look around.  If you find one ramp, search the immediate area and you will likely find more.  A general rule of thumb is that if the ramp has three leaves, it will have a bulb on the end.  Two leaves and it is likely slender, similar to a young green onion. If I find small looking ones I will leave them and check back later.  When a ramp is fully mature, the leaves are nearly ten inches long and two inches wide; the leaves will also become more shiny and more deeply textured.  Rules of thumb have their exceptions, and sometimes a two-leaved ramp can have a big bulb (deer like these too, and will sometimes pull out a fresh leaf), and some three-leaved ones can be tiny.  A usual good telling sign is the shininess of the leaves and their size, if the deer haven’t nibbled them down.  Once you have collected some you will learn more what to look for.

The bulbs of the ramps are usually three or four inches below the surface, and can be difficult to uproot.  This is why you will need gloves and a garden shovel.Digging Ramps

Place the tip of your shovel about an inch and a half from the base of the ramp, tilt it straight up-and-down and push it into the earth to about 4 inches deep.  You may have to wiggle it left and right, or even re-position it if you hit a tree root or a rock.  Pull the shovel back quickly, the handle all the way to the ground, and the ramp will pop up.  Be careful here, as even loosened like this the bulb may break off as you pull the ramp.  I find that shaking the shovel in an up-and-down motion as you pull on the leaves helps the bulb to come out easily.Uprooted Ramp

The ramps in my woods are plentiful now, and I want to be sure they will be like this in the future.  I am careful to take only part of a patch that I find, and I will be collecting seeds this fall to replant.

Tonight I will make a gallery of ramp photographs that will aid you in ramp identification, and help you to have an eye for them when you get out to search.

Good luck and happy hunting,

Diamond Willard

Hiking the Hills for Ramps and Fiddleheads

Yesterday was a little chilly, but I found it to be great weather for scaling my surrounding hills and ravines in search of Ramps and Fiddleheads, two forager’s favorites of early spring.  There was a bit of a breeze too, making the greens of the ramps to sway asRamps, also known as wild leeks if they were waving at me to say “Hey you, over here”, and I could follow these wavers from one patch to another.  I only had a few hours for hiking that day, and I came out of the woods with a grocery bag full of these, thanks, in part, to the breeze.

For those who are not familiar with Ramps, they are a wild leek with a flavor like an onion, but with a hint of garlic and black pepper.  They have a very short season in the spring.   Around here, the season is usually from mid-April to mid-May. This season overlaps the usual season for Morel mushrooms, and I find that these two go together perfectly.  One of my favorite Morel dishes is just Morels and Ramps sautéed in butter, yum.

       The trail of ramps that I found eventually led me to another spring delicacy, Fiddleheads.  These are the young rolled up shoots of a fern.  The fern I was looking for was the Ostrich Fern, these fiddleheads are the ones preferred by gourmet chefs for their superior flavor.  Unfortunately, I found these just before heading back to pick the kids up from school.  I quickly gathered a few handfuls and planned to return the following day.

Soon I will begin posting some useful tips for finding, collecting, storing, and preparing these springtime edibles.