Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Nettles!

*this post is about two days behind. I have just arrived in the town of Linville and will be taking 2 days off in Asheville to take care of some household needs. Soon to be posted- overview of this this section as well as more plant and fun pics!

The Linville Gorge has proved to be a true butt kicker. However, a butt kicker with magnificent views from Shortoff Mtn, the Chimneys, and Table Rock. But as I watched the hawks soaring through the valley below me I wondered, why wasn't I born with a pair of those feathery wings? I suppose it's a good thing I wasn't, I might look a bit strange.

The first couple of days consisted of winding around the the mountains on wide old sandy jeep roads and I marveled at how the moist soil I'd been treading upon for the last 170m quickly turned to pure red clay and then sand and rock. The vegetation changed along with it. Gone went all of my moist cool forest loving plant friends, such as Black Cohosh, Trillium, Violets, and Foam flower, suddenly replaced by Pitch Pine, Bristly locust, Goat's Rue, and Sand Myrtle. Besides the persisting mountain laurel and rhododendron, I wondered, “Where have I traveled to”, and then, “I guess I'm not in Asheville anymore.” The next couple of days were filled with steep ups and downs, the steepest yet, through fire scorched sandy woods in the blazing hot sun, with many of the creeks and springs dried up, however it was here that I was rewarded with the massive splendor of the gorge and its rocky walls, as well as my first swimming- the Linville River with sandy beach and chair and all. More cold mountain waterholes were soon to follow.

And finally, as of today, just when I thought I'd never see a wild edible green again, I have climbed out of the gorge and descended back into my wet thick deciduous woods, with running creeks and rain and clean cold swimming holes. I have never been so happy for such abundant water. I have been fantasizing about frosty bottles of Aquafina and cans of Coca-cola for the last two days- so badly that when I'd gaze upon a town in the valley or glance at a plane overhead, my first thought was, “I wonder what those people are drinking right now?” And the trail, well, if you ever plan to hike the MST, or at least this portion, though it's absolutely worth it, bring a map! No, you know what, I have a map, and that didn't even prevent me from wandering down some other trail or ending up bushwhacking through thick rhododendron at least once daily. Just remember this, “If you doubt that you're on the trail, check your map, check your guide, double back, check your watch, look for blazes anywhere you could possibly think to look – up, down, horizontal- and then just start walking and hope for the best.”

It's been an adventure, Linville, a beautiful, at times exasperating, adventure.

So speaking of wild edible greens I thought I might never see again. The first edible greenie back on the scene was Wood Nettle (Laportea canadensis). Oh, yes Wood Nettle, goes good in a pot, goes good rolled in ball, goes good when stinging bare legs to take your mind off sore feet. Wood Nettle is edible, however not medicinal, at least not in the same sense as Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica). They are both considered true nettles and share the same family (Urticaceae or the Nettle Family), but not the same genus. Also, botanically speaking, they have some striking differences.

Wood nettle is the only true nettle with alternate leaves. Urtica dioica has opposite leaves, as does another nettle closely related called Slender Nettle (Urtica procera). So if you see a plant with stinging hairs and alternate leaves, this will already clue you in to the likelihood of Wood Nettle. 
Wood Nettle (Laportea canadensis) alternate leaves and purplish nodes (although I've have seen wood nettle without the very purple nodes

  
And although both Nettles have toothed margins (outer leaf edges), pointed apexes (leaf tips) and a somewhat wrinkled appearance, the base of Wood Nettle's leaves are round, whereas Urtica dioica's are heart-shaped.


Wood Nettle leaves with round base, toothed margin, and pointed apex

Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica) leaves with  heart shaped base
Thirdly, we certainly cannot forget the stinging hairs of Wood Nettle, though Stinging Nettle bears the very word in its common name and in my opinion packs a more brutal sting, Wood Nettle still stings, possessing fine hollow hairs that act like needles. These are found on the stem, leaf stems, and leaves. When an unnoticing hiker brushes past, fluid at the base of each hair pressed is injected into the skin, releasing histamine, formic acid, and neurotransmitters such as serotonin. Now, whether our body actually processes say serotonin as serotonin, or breaks it down into something else, is unknown. However, I will say, as I breezed down the trail, getting brushed from this side and that, like a car through a carwash, afterwards, I felt quite alert and well, "charged UP!" The sting can leave a sort of itchy, shivery, sensation, but does not last all that long. It also seems as if different communities offer different degrees of sting. I have encountered Wood Nettle in which I've had to do all I can to receive a sting, and others where it took just a single touch.


Stinging hairs of Wood Nettle


 Lastly, when in flower, Wood Nettle will display both female flowers in the axils and male flowers terminally, whereas Stinging Nettle has male and female flowers on separate plants, hence the name Urtica "dioica" which means "2 houses" or in this case, "2 plants." The greenish female flowers will hang in loose clusters from the axils, whereas the male will reside in, more upright, at the top of the plant. Wood Nettle nor Stinging Nettle will not flower until Summer.

Wood Nettle is an incredibly nutritious food, high in vitamins A and C, magnesium, potassium, iron, and calcium. I also found it too be quite tasty. If grabbed with confidence and rolled up into a sort of tube, you must likely will not get stinged, one can also grasp a bit more carefully and roll up the leaf to the stem where you can pluck it off easily, also without getting stung. This does not always work, but I have found it does 99% of the time. I harvested some as I was hiking from this amazing patch you'll see below, and saved in a ziploc for that night's dinner. I added them to a pot of mac and cheese, letting them boil with the noodles and they came out quite nicely, a light taste and an easy addition. If you like to nibble while you hike you can also grab the leaves, rolled them up into tight balls and just pop them in your mouth. I did this as well and didn't get stung once. However, I recommend the smaller leaves for this, as the larger ones are more fibrous and better reserved for cooking.

Was some hungry hiker requesting greens? This patch as well as another large patch hugged both sides of the trail for about 0.2m

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