Inian Executive Director, Zach Brown, recounts a tale of nettle gathering and its significance for the Institute and the history of the Inian Islands.
“Crawl back into those bushes. That’s it – really get in there.” On our hands and knees, we groped through the prickly brambles of salmonberry, searching for the even more prickly (and slightly toxic) stinging nettle.
This was the June 2016 Teacher Expedition at Inian Islands Institute, in partnership with Discovery Southeast, and Richard Carstensen, one of the foremost naturalists of Southeast Alaska, was among the instructors. He urged us on through the thicket.
Out for a walk at the far end of the Hobbit Hole cove, Richard’s keen observer’s eye saw a stand of salmonberry looking unusually dense, almost as though it had been planted – or at least helped along – by people. Richard has spent much of his adult life observing the sites where indigenous people of Southeast Alaska made homes, and the Hobbit Hole’s protected cove, strategically situated at the edge where inside waters meet open ocean, was a definite fit. The evidence of a major summer camp was everywhere, from culturally modified trees to grave sites to beautiful trade beads dug up in the garden. The salmonberries might be another clue to human activities on these islands. But Richard knew the Tlingit often cultivated salmonberry and stinging nettle as a pair. If this thick grove of salmonberries was here because of people, we ought to be seeing nettles too.
“Got anything?” Richard called from the beach.
The bushes shook in reply. “No nettles!” called a high school teacher from Juneau, her voice muffled by the dense foliage. Soon we gave up the search. Instead of nursing stings from nettle barbs, we wandered home eating fistfuls of red and yellow raspberry-like fruits. Maybe they were planted there by people, and maybe they were not – without the corroboration of nettles, Richard couldn’t say.
But the other day, my fiancee Laura and I wandered past the same patch of salmonberry – only this time, we could see. It being April, nothing had leafed out yet to obscure our view of the ground where nettles might grow. Curious, I crept along the edge of the salmonberry grove looking intently through the dry canes – and there they were. Hundreds of nettles carpeting the ground, exactly where Richard, nearly 2 years ago, had predicted they would be.
Urtica dioica, stinging nettle, was used by coastal peoples as a spring green, and so it remains to this day. I can testify to how delicious they are, added to mashed-potatoes or roasted like kale chips. And healthful! After they’ve been steamed (to neutralize the stinging hairs), the steam water left in the pot is an inky blue-green, almost black with nutrients. Wheat grass shots at boutipue smoothie joints down south have nothing on nettle juice. Indeed, Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast by Pojar and MacKinnon (the botanist’s bible), says nettles can be used as a spring tonic, and quotes this traditional rhyme: “If they would drink nettles in March / and eat mugwort in May / so many fine maidens / would not go to clay.” I’ll leave the interpretation (and the mugwort) to you, but it sounds like we’re talking about a damn salubrious plant. After growing to maturity, nettle was also used as one of the only fiber plants on the Pacific Northwest Coast – its strong stems woven into fishnets and snares.
The next day, Laura and I returned armed with rubber gloves and bags for the harvest. (They say if you pinch the stems briskly and firmly with thumb and forefinger, no harm will come to you – it’s when you brush the plants that their stinging hairs release formic acid to irritate our skin – but Laura and I weren’t keen to take that chance.)
Apparently eating nettles in spring on these islands is a generations-old theme, but Laura added a new twist: sauteed nettles on pesto pizza. There were no leftovers. And in the Tlingit tradition, we might just transplant some of these nettles ourselves, creating new patches for future generations of Inian Islands Institute students.