Squamish Language: ts’exts’ix
Range: Stinging nettle is found growing in abundance from Alaska, through British Columbia as far south as Oregon.
Habitat: Found growing in rich, moist soil along streams, rivers, meadows, and open forest. This plant thrives in disturbed habitats such as village sites, roadsides, and barnyards.
Parts of plant used: New spring shoots and leaves
Stinging nettle is a nutritious spring green that has many uses, and once identified, may become a staple for your spring foraging. This plant is a perennial and grows as tall as 1.5–2.5 metres at maturity. The stem is usually less than one centimetre in diameter and the coarsely saw-toothed leaves are lance-shaped to oval and have a pointed tip and a heart-shaped base. The leaves are found growing in opposite pairs along the stalk.
The leaves and stem have stinging hairs that contain formic acid and can cause a stinging reaction when they come in contact with the skin; thus, many people opt to wear gloves when harvesting. Cooking or drying destroys the stinging properties; this includes drying nettles for tea, sautéing, steaming, or baking.
Stinging nettles are best harvested for eating when the young shoots are less than a foot tall and still have a purple tinge to the leaves. They are at their most tender then. They can continue to be harvested beyond this height but they do get more fibrous as they grow and eventually will be too tough to eat. These nettles are rich in Vitamins A and C as well as in minerals including calcium, iron, magnesium, and potassium. They are a delicious substitute for spinach, and can be added to soups and stir fries for added nutrition and vibrant color. The leaves can also be dried and used to make a healthy tea. Stinging nettle can be used in a bath to help with rheumatism, and the mature plant can be processed to make strong cordage. Many coastal First Nations, including Squamish, used this cordage to make strong fish nets and fishing line.
The origins of this plant are not certain. It is likely that Uritca dioica was brought here from England long ago but there were also species of Urtica native to Canada that hybridize readily with Urtica dioica. The food uses and plant properties are identical.
The Squamish name for stinging nettle, ts’exts’ix, comes from the root word ts’ix meaning singed or burned. My great uncle has told me that the stinging indicates the power and medicine in this plant. He has used the fresh plant to sting himself on his arthritic joints to help with pain. He believes that the local sting from the nettle increases blood flow and helps with swelling and pain.
Squamish People know that when the stinging nettle is a few inches tall this marks the time that the baby seals are born. This is an example of the deep connection that develops between people and their natural environments over thousands of years being spent out on the land.
Note from the author: I have always been taught to respect plants and to be sure not to harvest too much from one single plant. There are many other animals that rely on the food and medicine that plants provide. It is also extremely important to go out harvesting with someone who is confident with plant identification and who can help to harvest and prepare the plants in a safe and responsible way.