grazing leaves and grasping nettles

It’s spring. And nothing makes me take more joy in this than grazing lime leaves straight from the tree. Freshly inflated, tender and glowing green in the sun, they are up there with the salad leaves. The public performance of eating them while walking down a side street, though, sets them up a notch. People notice. Children are particularly likely to comment. And it’s sometimes possible to persuade passerbys to try, and even if they don’t taste them then, it’s opened up to them that we live in edible landscapes.

Picking nettles also leads to these conversations. They’re one plant that most people, however urban, are likely to have heard of, if only to hate and avoid them.* However, knowing that there is a plant that stings, called the nettle, is not the same as being able to recognise it reliably. Being unable to identify a plant which stings makes all foliage pretty scary. I accompanied a reception class on a trip through some woodland, and saw the fear with which they were kept on the path, not touching plants on either side by the other class staff. Learning of a threat from nature, without learning how to control it, seems a surefire way to generate aversion.

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So, there’s something to counter with introducing nettles, not as a scary plant, but as an exciting and tasty one. Eating something with shock value attracts the attention of people who generally think of plants, and cooking as boring. It’s a story to tell. “You’re fun. In a weird way.” was the groundbreaking observation of a 13yrold in reaction to me drinking nettle tea.

Picking nettles in public spaces is, as with eating leaves from the tree, an invitation to conversation. Spreading the possibility of a different interaction with food, skipping the chain of commerce. Free, tasty, healthy, zero-impact vegetable matter. What’s not to love?

Recipes… are all over the internet these days. My favourite thing is to fry onions & garlic, add nettle tips, continue to fry until they wilt, add a sprinkle of flour and then some stock to make a green white sauce. It’s great in pie, as an alternative to tomato in pizza, on toast, on pasta…

Even simpler are lime leaves – they’ re just a tender, mild salad leaf. Use as you’d use lettuce, if it weren’t at all bitter.

*Finding a 12 year old who didn’t recognise them, and hadn’t heard of them at all, surprised me. “But I don’t live in nature” she said.

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