Wheezing uncontrollably in the pollen-laden air, I make a sunset run to the nearest nettle patch at the city’s edge. I park my car on the side of the dusty dirt road and enter the woods beneath cottonwood and box elder. I walk past sprawling patches of denuded ostrich ferns, crudely cut stumps deprived of the chance to unfurl. Located just beyond the urban fray, this patch of ferns falls victim to the tragedy of the commons each spring as commercial foragers make their rounds and leave no fiddlehead behind.
Soon, I reach the sandy banks of the Winooski River and find myself surrounded by stinging nettles – abundant and overlooked. More resilient and less fetishized than fiddleheads or ramps, the lowly nettle is a natural antihistamine that makes a cleansing and mineral-rich tea or spinach substitute. Nettle supports healthy digestive system and kidney function, and even fosters milk production in lactating mothers.
Cooking or drying neutralizes the formic acid, the source of the sting that lends the plant its common name. If you’re not careful, though, the nettles will get you before you get them, their tiny hairs leaving you with a harmless but memorable sting that can sizzle long after you have left the patch. Having forgotten my gloves at home, I pull off a sock for protection and quickly clip a basketful of gorgeous greens. My forearms get a bit stung, but it’s a welcome distraction from my allergies.
Arriving home, I put a pot of water on to boil, rinse the nettles, and throw them in to simmer for several minutes. The tea tastes like asparagus – fresh and vegetal, almost sweet. As I sip nettle tea from my favorite mug, the heavy sky cracks open and a much-needed rain falls down upon the land. I step out onto my porch and watch rivers of pollen rush down the street and into the sewer. The temperature quickly drops down into the sixties.
It is a perfect storm. Welcome back, morels.