Feral Culture: Dandelions & Stinging Nettle

Stinging nettle spanikopita. AKA "Nettlekopita."
"Gross, you might think, who would eat a stinging nettle? Well, me, for one, and anyone who enjoys spring charcuterie at such bistros as Chinched."

In a culture of 24 hour supermarkets, global trade, and all-year produce availability, we tend to look in disdain at the dandelion and the stinging nettle as something to be removed, poisoned, or simply ignored.

This was not always the case. These plants were once valued as an important spring food source. In Japan, they are not even called weeds, but belong to a group referred to as sansai, or wild spring vegetables, and are highly prized to this day.

Gross, you might think, who would eat a stinging nettle? Well, me, for one, and anyone who enjoys spring charcuterie at such bistros as Chinched, with their nettle infused sausage and other delicious spring vegetable treats.

If you can choke down a bitter, fibrous stalk of kale, some steamed nettle with butter and pepper or perhaps sautéed young dandelion leaves with balsamic vinegar will be absolutely delightful for you. Still too much? Try sansai tempura, a battered and deep fried spring tradition that is impossible not to enjoy.

Many plants can be dangerous to forage as they have toxic doppelgangers, but these two are difficult to mistake for most Newfoundlanders. Caution must still be exercised.

Coltsfoot flowers look much like dandelions, but can be correctly identified by knowing that leaves come before flower buds with dandelions, whereas coltsfoot flowers come first, and then its leaves, which look nothing like the thin indented dandelion leaves.

Coltsfoot is not toxic as such, but contains pyrrolizidine alkaloids which cause cumulative liver damage and should be avoided by those with liver issues, children, pregnant women and the elderly. That said, it has a long history of medicinal use for chest ailments for those who can use it safely. A good guide book is a true friend to both the new forager and the more experienced alike.

The idea of sadly choking down foraged goods because they are ‘sustainable’ or ‘healthy’ (although they are both) is something that needs to be updated with the understanding that they are wild, delicious treats we are lucky to be able to enjoy, no less than fresh game meat and fish. The fact that they are free and consuming them does us and our land so much good is a fabulous bonus.

If traipsing through the forest is not your bag, and searching vacant lots is not your style either, there is another option. Grow a forest garden, a very simple endeavour. Till the ground and plant seeds of whatever domesticated veggies or flowers you’d like, and as weeds appear only remove the undesirable ones, keeping the food source wild plants growing.

If the weeds you want don’t pop up, visit a site where they grow and harvest a few seeds to scatter in your garden space. If your neighbours don’t get it and with the best of intentions offer you some sort of poison to “take care of your garden problem,” smile, say no thanks, and invite them over for a delicious meal of sansai tempura and nettle spanikopita.

Emma Goldman once said, “If I can’t dance, then it’s not my revolution,” and if this attitude is applied to our relationship with wild food, there is so much joy in doing something so beneficial to us all.

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