Lately, when staring quizzically at my biochemistry text, I imagine I feel similar to plants with whom I’m unacquainted, staring at forest’s edge. Forms in every shade of green possible, all blending into each other. How do you tell them apart? Where do I even start?
When I’m new at something I feel overwhelmed, totally unrelatable, I know. The codes and patterns all seem incoherent and jumbled, it’s hard to make sense when I don’t know the symbols. I feel lost and irritated and foggy. Sunday I was having an immersive experience in being a biochemistry greenhorn and felt like I wanted to crawl out of my skin.
I’ve grown up with a father who has great affection for organic chemistry. He loves to draw out reactions and stick renderings of molecules. One thanksgiving he was shocked that no one else knew what aldehydes were while in the midst of theorizing on which additive would assist a honeycomb cake in forming hexagonal air pockets. He loves this microscopic universe of amino acids, hydroxyls, esters, and fatty acids, and seems to really appreciate what they all bring to the table.
I want to get there, but I’m not there yet. Right now I just feel like I’m reading Russian, so last Sunday, when I was nearing meltdown, corrosive acids of stress eating my brain, Greg and I went for a run. We had a side mission of harvesting some nettles I’d found a week ago. Once outside I suddenly felt relief. The flowers are just gushing their petal love all over the sidewalks and luring me in for whiffs. The knotweed is already up to my chest in some places, and I revel in the un-tame bounding from every median. Entanglements of street smart mugwort, garlic mustard, carpets of violet, and thick stands of ornery nettles.
This crowd feels like home, and I pepper Greg with new sighting outbursts, “oh look, there’s an autumn olive!” and “oh, there’s a June berry!” He now teases me with “is it packed with vitamin C?” I’m feeling more at home in the strange land of Schenectady and regain a sense of competence while recognizing the patterns of the plants with ease like faces of old friends.
When I was a kid in Minnesota, as a family we made the best of being far from the Atlantic ocean and blood relatives. We bonded with each other and the backyard with a thick layer of black topsoil, unruly garden, and small, deep lake. By some tremendous luck, my little sister befriended a girl named Gracie whose family we became very close with. To this day, John Ratzloff, her dad, is a dear friend of my father. We had dinner with them almost every week while living in Minnesota. Fortunately for all of us, John is a morel mushroom hunter and his family hosted an annual morel bacchanal with foods inspired by this singular fungus. Morel stroganoff was almost always on the weekly menu when we were together. At the time, I had no idea how special this was.
A sixth grade art teacher prompted my class to make a clay model of our favorite meal. Mine was this morel stroganoff, with bruschetta, and roasted potatoes, the same starchy feast we shared with the Ratzloffs nearly every week. They had taken us in, fed us delicacies of the land, and helped us feel most at home as possible. Minnesota was odd to us, people talked and behaved differently. I’m sure as a 4th grader entering a new school I was overwhelmed. Now I look back with affection as we found our way to land connection and chosen family in a place so unfamiliar.
While on my study break jaunt last weekend I found my first morels ever. They were trickled conspicuously in a hundred foot row, right along the bike path in Schenectady. I was in a state of euphoria for the rest of the evening. I gave some to Greg’s parents and saved the rest to share with mine for later. On a day when I was feeling so lost, there were the morels, reminding me not to worry, that lasting friends can be made in foreign places. I just need to keep showing up at the study table, I learn the new customs of alcohols and ketone bodies and the urea cycle, and before I know it, they’ll tug my heart with that same familiar joy.
From John's book, Roon: A Tribute to Morel Mushrooms, pictured above. John Ratzloff is a photographer living in Northern Minnesota. Here's a link to some of his photographs.
Plant defenses and Human benefits
“One day he saw some country people busily engaged in pulling up nettles; he examined the plants, which were uprooted and already dried, and said: 'They are dead. Nevertheless, it would be a good thing to know how to make use of them. When the nettle is young, the leaf makes an excellent vegetable; when it is older, it has filaments and fibres like hemp and flax. Nettle cloth is as good as linen cloth. Chopped up, nettles are good for poultry; pounded, they are good for horned cattle. The seed of the nettle, mixed with fodder, gives gloss to the hair of animals; the root, mixed with salt, produces a beautiful yellow coloring-matter. Moreover, it is an excellent hay, which can be cut twice. And what is required for the nettle? A little soil, no care, no culture. Only the seed falls as it is ripe, and it is difficult to collect it. That is all. With the exercise of a little care, the nettle could be made useful; it is neglected and it becomes hurtful. It is exterminated. How many men resemble the nettle!' He added, after a pause: ‘Remember this, my friends: there are no such things as bad plants or bad men. There are only bad cultivators.’”
-Victor Hugo, Les Miserables
Thank you Victor Hugo, nettles deserve all the praise and attention they can get. I’ve been reading another book, The Law of Dreams, about the Irish potato famine and nettles have already been mentioned multiple times in the first few chapters---a food that kept them alive when much else had failed.
A collector of plant stories, I love finding these nuggets of mention in literature. Last week, since we were discussing polyphenols in my biochemistry class, I had the opportunity to root around in scientific papers for some nettle love.
Polyphenols are the micronutrients plants possess to keep themselves well from UV radiation and pathogens. They also happen to be antioxidants for humans. When we eat them on the regular, they can protect us from the laundry list of chronic health conditions---cancers, diabetes, heart disease, etc. (Pandey & Rizvi, 2009) They also can directly alter our cell membranes, improving cell to cell communication, which may have implications for brain health (Tarahovsky, 2008).
Many herbs, vegetables, and wild plants especially, are loaded with these beneficial compounds, of which there are 8,000 types, though nettle stands out as a star (Augspole et al., 2017). This why you hear over and over again, eat a diversity of plants! We need an abundance and a variety to keep our cells humming and safe.
One paper that measured nettles with other common wild herbs, including dandelion, goutweed, and chickweed found that nettles were “richest in individual polyphenols” comparatively (Augspole et al., 2017, pg. 38). Cue applause for the nettle! Another paper found that one gram of stinging nettle contains twice the amount of phenolic content than 100mL of cranberry juice, 129mg v. 66.61 mg (Kregiel et al., 2018). Nettle inflorescence extracts (aerial parts containing the flower) were found to possess the most phenolic power, richest in cholorogenic acid, rutin, and isoquercetin (Kregiel et al., 2018).
So what is a good dose of this fine food? How about everyday, as much as possible, while the plants are in season?! We’re meant to be drinking in plants right now, our bodies are hungry for these compounds most of us have been lacking for a long stretch of winter. So eat up!
Want to get nerdy on polyphenols? Check out some of the references for more information.
Augspole, I., Department of Chemistry, Faculty of Food Technology, Latvia University of Agriculture, Iela, L., Lv–, J., … Latvia University of Agriculture. (2017). Phenolic profile of fresh and frozen nettle, goutweed, dandelion and chickweed leaves. doi:10.22616/foodbalt.2017.028
Kregiel, D., Pawlikowska, E., & Antolak, H. (2018). Urtica spp.: Ordinary Plants with Extraordinary Properties. Molecules , 23(7). doi:10.3390/molecules23071664
Tarahovsky, Y. (2008). Plant polyphenols in cell-cell interaction and communication. Plant Signaling & Behavior, 3(8), 609-611. doi: 10.4161/psb.3.8.6359
Pandey, K. B., & Rizvi, S. I. (2009). Plant polyphenols as dietary antioxidants in human health and disease. Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity, 2(5), 270–278.
Nettles and know how
My little sister is pregnant right now. Naturally as her older sister, I am bit worried. Having a child is hard (as they say). Having a child right now is a few levels up, I imagine.
Early on in this quarantine experience, I projected all my fears about COVID and this economic train wreck onto her, wanting to problem solve with her (but really for her).
One day we were chatting though, and I was doing my best to hold back my “ideas” and just make space for her to vent and share what it’s like to be growing a child in the middle of a pandemic. I’m not sure who brought it up but suddenly we started chatting about the food plants just starting to pop up. She is in Pennsylvania, so back in early April the nettles were already popping and dandelion greens looking bright.
She shared how safe she felt knowing she could feed her family, after getting laid off and witnessing the supply chain breakdowns at grocery stores, with these wild foods. It was that in moment, I relaxed and let go of my need to try and manage her life. She has know how, ingenuity, and resourcefulness. Of course! She knows the plants and they have her back.
She’s been a little stir crazy being in her third trimester with more limitations than she’s used to, and living a life more domestic than she’d ever imagined. Yet, she’s sent me a tome of poetry for editing she’s hoping to publish and has been overcome with culinary industry---sending me photos of the dandelion wine and nettle palak paneer she is busy crafting! I’m so proud of her, and though she’s far, I feel so comforted by the elders she has nurturing her with green goodness---mama nettles and daddy dandelion. I’m so grateful we share this love.
Here is a poem she wrote, first published in one of our old Acorn Kitchen comic books from 2013. When I first read it, I was moved but now, a bit weepy. The weepiness that comes from being awash with gratitude and the heartbreaking splendor of this life.
I have built my bones
From the milk of weeds
Grown my fuzzed fur from
The prick of nettle leaves
Cast my heart’s strength
From the sweet smell of rose love
And picked relief from
The weeping bracts above
Each limb of mine stretches
To spring from wild sprout
Feel nourished and whole
In flood and drought
Nettles are just coming up here and we’re starting to eat ‘em! This week you’ll find them in the wild greens egg cups. As an extra ode to my family, this week I’m also cooking up some German potato salad decorated with ribbons of dandelion greens. My mother taught me how to make this one and it’s in my top five comfort foods.
Carly lives and eats from a hilltop in Cummington, Massachsuetts and part time in Schenectady, NY.