Whether sifting through sand, or scrambling over a rocky shore, it's about finding treasures in every day. 

Edible Goosetongue or Poisonous Arrowgrass?

It was so good to see the sun today! The lengthening days have me thinking of spring gathering, and that reminded me of a post that I didn’t get out to you last year. I’m fixing that today. So this year how about adding goosetongue to your veggie choices? It’s too early to harvest yet, but maybe this will take your mind off of the cement-like snowbanks lurking in your driveway.

Let’s go for a walk on the beach…

It is spring to mid-summer, the weather is pleasant, and things have greened up. A few seagulls are whining and looking aimless because the salmon haven’t come in yet. The eagle in the big tree on the point is watching you because, face it, you are the most interesting thing happening on the beach.

As you get close to the rocky point you notice goosetongue growing at the top of the beach. Some of it has bits of seaweed stuck in the leaves from the last high tide, but there’s some goosetongue above the tide line that looks pretty clean. Knowing that goosetongue is a tasty snack and delicious potherb you mosey on up to harvest some. A little tickle in the back of your mind tells you that there was something about a look-alike plant that is poisonous, though. Now what was it that the plant book said?

Well, let’s leave the beach for a bit so that I can show you some pictures of goosetongue and arrowgrass. Goosetongue is great food. Arrowgrass has a small part of the plant that might be edible in early spring, but the leaves are poisonous because they contain cyanide-producing glycosides. The two plants are similar enough that they do get mixed up. Worse yet, they often grow right beside each other.

Goosetongue and arrowgrass growing together

Goosetongue (Plantago maritima ssp. juncoides) is in the plantain family. It is also called sea plantain, seaside plantain, and ribwort. The less-used common name, ‘ribwort,’ makes sense to me because of the plant’s ribbed leaves and ‘wort’ meaning ‘useful plant.’

Goosetongue leaves and stems grow in a cluster from the ground. Each fleshy leaf has ribs running lengthwise up its back. The rounded, leafless stem has a dense flower spike at the top.


Okay, let's compare that to the poisonous arrowgrass.

Arrowgrass (top) and goosetongue (bottom)

Arrowgrass (Triglochin maritima) has fleshy leaves that are narrower and more rounded in cross section than goosetongue. Like goosetongue, arrowgrass has a leafless stalk with a flower spike at the top. Arrowgrass grows taller than goosetongue, so it is easiest to confuse the two in the springtime.

Arrowgrass leaves (top)and goosetongue leaves (bottom)

Arrowgrass (top) and goosetongue (bottom) have similar flower spikes.

A friend related to me that she was walking along the beach munching on greens one day and asked her companion, “What is this plant that tastes like bitter cilantro?” Right then her heart started to pound and she felt short of breath. She was lucky that her symptoms passed after some time. Arrowgrass can cause headaches, heart palpitations, and convulsions. It can be deadly to livestock.

Look for the ribs on the backs of the leaves and choose goosetongue.

Goosetongue leaves have ribs on the back.

Goosetongue is salty and succulent. It is very high in vitamin A, high in vitamin C, and a good source of iron. Best of all it tastes good! Goosetongue can be eaten raw, lightly steamed, sautéed, and can be preserved by pressure canning or by blanching and freezing. Munch it as a beach snack or gather some and add it to stir fries, salads, omelettes, and casseroles.

Goosetongue is best in spring and early summer. When the seed heads mature goosetongue leaves become stringy.

And that mosquito bite that you got on your neck while you were picking goosetongue? Crush a goosetongue leaf with your fingernails and apply the mash to the bug bite. Like other members of the plantain family, goosetongue will quiet the itchiness.

Goostongue is abundant in much of Southeast Alaska

Processing and Using Nettles

On this precious, sunshiny, Southeast Alaska day I grabbed up my daypack and fishing pole and followed a muddy path through last year’s dry grass to a river. Trout made quick splashes, piquing my interest in a trout dinner. It was not to be, though, because fish protein is pretty easy to come by in this area, and young nettles diverted my attention away from the water. Young nettle greens are delicious, and are used as medicinal herbs. They are only available for a limited time, so I pulled gloves and scissors out of my pack and set to work gathering.

New greens in springtime provide nutrients that refresh our winter-laden bodies. Stinging nettles are one of the best. Nettles are high in:

Young nettle plants found near a river.

Minerals: Calcium, iron, magnesium, manganese

Vitamins: A, B6, and K

Plant protein, chlorophyll, fiber, and carbohydrates

Nettles contain many other nutrients that our bodies need small amounts of.

I have long thought of nettles as a women’s herb because of women’s need for calcium, iron, and magnesium, but nettles are a men’s herb, too. Nettle root mixed with saw palmetto was compared to the drug finasteride in a large clinical trial in Germany testing effectiveness for enlarged prostate. The nettle-saw palmetto blend was as effective as the generic drug, and without side effects.

Other clinical trials have shown stinging nettles efficacy in treating arthritis, hay fever, asthma, seasonal allergies, hives, chronic venous insufficiency, and more. Herbalists employ nettles to treat eczema, congestion, arthritis, rheumatism, gout, allergies, circulation problems, hair loss, kidney stones, bleeding, PMS, bladder infections, and anemia, among other maladies.* Stinging nettle is also a diuretic.* Stinging nettle is a spring tonic.* This is a good plant!

As I mentioned in the last post, stinging nettles are armed with stinging hairs. Wear gloves if you gather nettles, and if you are going to harvest your large garden patch then wear long sleeves and eye protection, too.


Since cooking or drying removes the sting, nettles can be eaten steamed, and in soups, stews, and casseroles. Add steamed nettle leaves to omelet’s, lasagna, pesto, and anywhere that you would use cooked spinach.

Young stinging nettle plants with their red-purple leaves. A little later in the season the red is gone and all of the leaves are dark green. This patch was near a beach.

Putting up Nettles

Rinsing the Nettles

Rinse stinging nettles thoroughly. The early growth is close to the ground and tends to be gritty. I triple rinse, dunking the nettles into a large bowl of cold water, agitating gently, lifting out by (gloved) handfuls, draining in a colander, and then changing the water in the bowl to rinse again. Later in the spring, while harvesting new leaves off of taller plants, one rinse is usually sufficient. I find it helpful to give the rinsed leaves a whirl in the salad spinner before steaming or drying.

Blanching and Freezing

Blanching and freezing young shoots saves these luscious greens to add to falltime and early winter dishes.

Stir a batch of stinging nettles into boiling water, cover, time for 30 seconds to 1 minute (I blanch for one minute, but have read that thirty seconds is adequate). Lift the nettles out and do a quick cold-water dunk to stop the cooking process. Strain in a colander. Press out the excess water.

Blanched young leaves will lose their reddish tinge to the boiling water, so don’t be alarmed if the water turns color.

Make meal-size and ingredient-size packages in freezer bags or by vacuum packaging. If you are vac-packing then watch that the juice doesn’t get sucked out of the bag and foul your vac-packer. If you are using freezer bags then work the nettles solidly down into the bag, pressing out all of the air before sealing the bag. Label with the date, and store in the freezer for up to six months.


Dehydrator - Lay the leaves out on the racks. Dry on low heat.

Hanging - Collect stems with new growth, rubber band the base of the stems in small bunches, and hang them upside down in a warm place where air can circulate through them. Once dry, strip the leaves off of the stems with gloved hands. The stems may be composted or added to a nettle soak.

On racks – Lay nettle leaves on mesh racks in a warm area out of direct sunlight. A small fan set on low may help them dry faster.

For all methods, when the leaves are crispy and brittle they are ready to store. Crunch them up and store them in tightly sealed glass jars away from light. They last up to one year.

Using Dried Nettles


Pour a cup of boiling water over 1 to 2 teaspoons of dried nettle leaves (a mesh infuser works well to contain them) and allow to steep for 5 to 10 minutes.

For sun tea put ¼ cup nettle leaves into a quart jar and fill with water. Put the lid on and place the jar in a sunny location for the day. Strain the leaves out, and refrigerate the sun tea to use over the next few days as iced tea, or heated for hot tea.

Nettle may be used as a tea by itself, and it also combines well with other herbs. I add it to the red clover blossom, field mint, eyebright, and violet leaf collected here in Southeast Alaska.

Nettles are energizing to some people, so evening use might keep you awake at bedtime.

Winter Food

Dried nettle leaves can be added directly to soups or stews during cooking.

Pour warm water over dried nettles to reconstitute them, and then use them as you would use cooked asparagus in any recipe.

Powdered nettle leaves can be a nutritious bonus in bread, added to green drinks and smoothies, used as a thickening agent, and stealthily incorporated into the family diet.

As a Relaxing Soak

Put dried nettle leaves into a mesh bag and add to your hot bath or footbath. This is where you can put older leaves and stems to good use and effect. Regular nettle soaks are said to ease arthritic conditions.*

Other Uses

Nettle plants are high in nitrogen, and a great addition to the compost pile.

Nettle stems contain enough long, tough fibers that they are used to make paper, rope, and cloth.


  • The gritty cystoliths formed in older nettle leaves cause kidney irritation. Use only new growth for internal use.  
  • Handle fresh stinging nettles with gloves.
  • As with most things, moderation is a good idea.


*The information provided on this site is for informational and educational purposes only, and should not be used to diagnose or treat illnesses, ailments, or diseases, nor to substitute for professional medical advice. This information has not been evaluated by the FDA and is not intended to treat or prevent disease. If you have a medical condition or suspect that you do, then consult with a certified medical professional.

Further reading

http://www.herballegacy.com/Vance_Stinging_Nettle.html - an amazing set of articles by Kassie Vance (copy and paste the address onto your browser)

"Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West" by Michael Moore

"Discovering Wild Plants" by Janice Schofield

http://www.ryandrum.com/threeherbs1.htm - an article by Ryan Drum (copy and paste the address onto your browser)

Wishing you the happiest spring foraging,

Alaska Beachcomber

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Food and Medicine from Nature (index to more articles)

Foraging Nettles; Tasty Spring Greens

Foraging Stinging Nettles, Tasty Spring Greens

From mid-April till mid-May I keep an eye out for nettles to harvest in Southeast Alaska. I enjoy them steamed, added to soups and stews, and dry them for use through the year. Nettles are tasty and very nutritious.

 There’s a catch, though, and if you have ever touched nettles then you know it. This plant has tiny hairs that inject irritating compounds into the skin. Within seconds of brushing bare skin against a nettle plant there is a prickly burning sensation and a red rash develops. The discomfort and rash usually go away within twenty minutes or so without lasting effect, but the plant itself can be used for faster relief. Put on gloves and rub nettle leaves vigorously between your gloved hands, and then apply the mushed leaves to the rash.

A patch of young nettle plants near Juneau.

In my truck are nitrile or latex gloves, scissors, and gathering bags. Fresh greens will wilt and compost very quickly, especially in a warm car, so on gathering days I put a cooler with a few plastic bottles of ice into the truck . If you don’t have a cooler then try to keep your herbs cool, allow air to circulate freely around them, and get them processed as soon as possible.

Update! I opened a new box of nitrile gloves, and they were thinner. I was getting stung through the gloves! I doubled them and no more stings. So, if you are using 'surgical' gloves then double them.

When I am headed out on a walk by a stream, lake, or beach in April and May then I tuck those gloves, scissors, and bags into my pack, because that is where I most often find nettles here in Southeast Alaska. Near Haines I have found them along roadsides and in the forest, too.

I have also seen nettles growing near houses and old cabins. This plant is so useful that it is a great garden addition if it is contained. Nettles happily spread themselves into rich, disturbed soil and then thrive for years. That time that I “helped” a friend by weeding the nettles out of between the rows in her garden? Yeah, (*blush*) that was when I learned that nettles are prized food. 

See the stinging hairs on the stem? They are on the leaves, too, with more on the underside than on the upper surface. (Click on photo to enlarge it)

The nettles in this photo are middle to right. The lighter green leaves on the left are thimbleberry and salmonberry.

So you don’t want to get stung to figure out if it is the right plant. Nettles have erect stems, up to 7 feet tall, opposite leaves with toothed edges, and have tiny hairs (sometimes difficult to see) protruding from leaves and stems. There are several varieties of nettles, so the leaves may be lanceolate, oval, or heart-shaped with pointed tips. Early in the year the new leaves are often red or purple. That said, there are other plants that look similar, so I look closely for those little stinging hairs poking out, especially from the stem. Please don’t use only the photos on this page to identify the plant. There are recommended books listed at the bottom of the page that will help with identification.

I use the top portion of the plant when it is very young, snipping it off with scissors. The whole plant may be okay to use when it is under ten inches high, but I always leave the bottom half of the plant so that it will regenerate more quickly for a second harvest. As the nettles get bigger I take the new growth only. Never use older, more mature leaves, as they contain substances that irritate your innards. And those buggy leaves? Leave those alone. They are a little bit yucky, and most likely have chemicals in them that the plant is producing to fight the bugs.

When I harvest nettles for steaming I put them loosely into paper bags or a plastic grocery bag, leaving the top open. Yes, gathering herbs in plastic bags is not recommended, but some days it is so rainy here that baskets and paper bags just don't work well. Garbage bags, even the white kitchen trash bags, often have pesticides added to them, so I stay away from those when gathering food. And, of course, gather only what you can process that day.

I often find yellow violets near nettle patches. This is another edible and medicinal plant!

In a few days I will post more about the nutritional value of nettles, and about preserving and using them. Right now, though, the river is calling so I must go walk along it's banks.

Great books:

  • Discovering Wild Plants by Janice Schofield
  • Plants of Coastal British Columbia including Washington, Oregon, and Alaska by Pojar and MacKinnon
  • Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West by Michael Moore

Happy Foraging!

Alaska Beachcomber

Related posts: Wild Tea,  Harvesting Devil's Club Root,  Devil's Club Salve and Tincture, 

And check out the Food and Medicine from Nature index for more!