Stinging Nettle Teaches
Homeschooled Teenager Why People Like to Shop
by Kimberly Gallagher, M.Ed.
Make Your Own Herbal Medicine!
I had been working with Annika for about three years when I suggested we use our time together to go harvest stinging nettles. Annika is a thirteen-year-old homeschooled young woman, and she was pretty tentative about my idea.
Now, she knew I had been studying herbalism, and we had done some other projects together such as making dandelion flower cookies and fritters, so she did agree to go, just reluctantly. I think my enthusiasm carried her along.
We drove a ways to my favorite nettle collecting spot - an open meadow in a forest of beautiful, old maple trees. She was enthralled by the beauty and magic of the place, and astounded by the number of nettle plants stretching out before us - a blanket of them beneath the trees. We'd worn our long pants and long sleeved shirts, and now we put on our gardening gloves and began to pick, I with my baby in a pack on my back.
After picking the first leaf without getting stung, Annika gained confidence and was soon picking happily. I told her how I had drunk nettle tea all through my pregnancies and to help with my milk flow in the early years of my babies' lives. I raved about nettle soup and how I put nettle leaves in all my recipes that called for greens in the early spring. I talked about how they were full of vitamins and minerals, and especially high in iron. And, mostly we were quiet, just picking nettle leaves together in this special, secret place.
After a time, I had to stop picking and nurse my baby. Annika, however, didn't stop as I thought she would. She kept picking. She was actually enjoying it! My heart leapt.
Herbal projects form an experiential base for in depth studies in the areas of science, math, social studies, and on a fundamental level, basic life skills.
I talked to her about how this is something women have been doing for centuries, how gathering is in our blood. Yes, I could see she felt it too, the rightness of it. She gathered and talked to me while I nursed Hailey. "Hey," she said, "maybe that's why women today like to shop so much. It reminds them of this."
What an amazing thought. I had never put that together before, but it did indeed make sense. This experience with Annika is only one of the magical experiences I have had doing herbal projects with kids.
I find that homeschooling and herbalism are very natural partners. Herbal projects form an experiential base for in depth studies in the areas of science, math, social studies, and on a fundamental level, basic life skills. Beyond this, herbal projects help connect children with the natural world in powerful, empowering ways.
After we had gathered those nettles, I sent Annika home with a recipe for cream of nettle soup. The soup provided a very simple way for her to use and taste what she had gathered right away. This is the place to begin with your homeschool student. Pick something to gather and a project you can do to immediately use what you bring home. This kind of experiential education will then provide a basis for all kinds of deeper studies. I suggest sticking with the experiential level for quite some time.
My son, Rowan, has grown up in our herbal family. Like Hailey he has gone on harvesting missions from his earliest days outside the womb (and even quite a few when he was still in the womb!). I have a picture of us picking red clover in a field when he was just a month old and riding in a sling on my front.
Now, at six, Rowan can identify the plants we pick often - red clover, stinging nettle, all of the edible berries around here (and there are many in the northwest), and many more. He is also a help when we go harvesting now, pulling on his gloves and happily filling his nettle bag or blackberry basket.
Rowan and my latest adventure together was digging burdock root. We tried to dig all the way down to the end of the root without breaking it. He had his own child sized shovel and I had my full sized one and we dug and dug, carefully, far from the root. We dug so deep that I had to reach my whole arm and head into the hole to reach the bottom and dig with my little hand trowel. Still we didn't get to the root tip. I kept asking Rowan, "Should I just break it? Are you tired of this?" "NO!" was his firm answer again and again.
He wanted to get to the bottom of the root. He became my cheerleader since he could no longer reach the bottom of the hole. Finally, anti-climatically, I broke the root off by accident. We were disappointed, but also astounded by how deep we had dug. This root was taller than 15-month-old Hailey!
Now we brought that root home and washed it and cut it up and stir-fried some of it for dinner. Rowan was able to taste it that very night. We poured vinegar over some, and will strain and taste it in a few weeks. We also made burdock pickles, which Rowan doesn't care for, but John (my husband) and I think are divine.
Rowan is growing in the sophistication of his learning with each herbal experience. Now he is learning to identify plants, asking questions like are the leaves opposite or alternate branching? What colors are the stems, the flowers, and the underside of the leaves? How many petals do the flowers have? When do they bloom?
...once homeschooling students have had some experiences seeing, touching, smelling, tasting, even listening to the plants, they are going to be inspired to learn more.
He is taking a more and more active role in the gathering process and in the processing of the plants once they are back at home. I imagine that, in a traditional society, these are the kinds of experiences young people would have on a daily basis as a very natural part of life. This is how they would learn "science." So please, don't underestimate the learning that is occurring through these experiences.
I'm working with another young teen-age girl right now, too. We had dug burdock together a week before Rowan and I went and I sent her home with the pickle recipe. She loved them! Then, the next time we met, we made root beer together from dried roots - burdock, sassafras, and licorice. How amazing is that, for a young person to learn that root beer is actually made from roots, and that it was originally a medicinal, tonic sort of beverage, rather than junk food. Not only did Rachel learn about the origin of a product she was used to buying in the store, she became empowered to make it herself from common plants she was coming to know.
Now, once homeschooling students have had some experiences seeing, touching, smelling, tasting, even listening to the plants, they are going to be inspired to learn more. Just look for those moments when their curiosity is peaked and begin offering them resources.
Study of Botany
These experiences open the doorway for deeper studies in botany, in ecosystems...
- Where do the plants grow and why?
- Where can we find the plants we want to gather?
and in chemistry...
- What are the constituents of the plants that make them effective as medicine or for nourishment?
- What makes some plants poisonous?
- How do we prepare the plants for our various uses?
Processing the plants through cooking opens the doorway for practical applications of math.
Then, as we learn about how people have used the plants historically we move into the realm of social studies.
Each of these subjects can be studied in whatever depth is appropriate for your child.
So, how do you get started?
Well, I suggest, come spring, you gather some dandelion flower petals and add them to your favorite sugar cookie recipe. It really is as easy as that.
Other beginning herbal projects:
- Dandelion Fritters
- Violet syrup
- Gathering plants for a wild salad (especially including edible flowers)
- Plantain or burdock leaf band-aids
- Cream of nettle soup
- Rose petal honey
- Digging roots for stir-fry
- Gathering herbs for tea.
If you get hooked after trying those dandelion flower cookies, please do take the time to learn about sustainable harvesting methods and remember to always give thanks for the plants you're gathering and the gifts they're bringing to your lives.
The Herbal Medicine Making Kit will be an invaluable resource to help you gain confidence in your own herbal skills so that you can pass them on to your children.
The free Roots and Branches course that comes with the kit even covers sustainable harvesting methods, and the activities in the kit can easily be done with your children.
Future projects to consider after gaining a little confidence and experience are practically endless.
Slightly More Advanced Projects:
Making your own:
- Lip balm
- Soda pop
- Healing salve or cream
- Beauty products
- House cleaning products
- Plant an edible flower and herb garden in your yard
- LearningHerbs.com and FamilyHerbalRemedies.com
- Herbal Medicine Making Kit - Everything you need to make your own salve and tincture and a free herbal medicine making home study course.
- Healing Wise by Susan Weed. Wonderful, entertaining, and detailed descriptions of a few common plants and many simple recipes.
- The Forager's Harvest: A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting, and Preparing Edible Wild Plants by Samuel Thayer
- Shanleya's Quest: A Botany Adventure for Kids Ages 9-99, by Thomas J. Elpel. A fun story that teaches basic botany to children.
- Botany in a Day: The Patterns Method of Plant Identification, by Thomas J. Elpel. A simple botany learning guide.
- Fun with Dandelions! by Diane Flynn Keith Creative dandelion activities for preschoolers.
- Edible Flower Identification by by K.B. Badertscher and S.E. Newman.
- Plants for Medicine - Terms and definitions associated with medicinal plant use.
- Edibility of Plants - Learn how to identify wild plants.
- Edible Wild Plants - Resources for the identification, harvesting, and preparation of wild plants that may be used for food.
For me, herbalism has become a way of life. It is at the heart of our family's life together. The passion that John and I have for herbalism makes it a natural homeschooling activity for our children.
Perhaps you will not take it as far as we have, perhaps you will just learn a couple of plants and do some fun projects with your children. At whatever level you and your children engage with the plants, I promise you surprising and richly fulfilling experiences that deepen your connections to each other and the natural world.
About the Author
Kimberly Gallagher, M.Ed. homeschools her budding herbalists, Rowan (6) and Hailey Wren (16 months). Kimberly is a certified teacher and formerly worked in alternative schools in Washington State. She is currently apprenticing in herbalism at Ravencroft Garden in Monroe, WA. She and her husband John started LearningHerbs.com and FamilyHerbalRemedies.com.
Please note that herbs, although natural, can lead to adverse health conditions, with deadly consequences. While uncommon, you may have an allergic reaction or overdose on them. Some herbs are very poisonous. Mixing herbs with some medications, even over-the-counter drugs, may be toxic. Please seek the advice of a professional herbalist, a licensed pharmacist or your family physician before dabbling in the unknown!
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Updated November 2, 2007