The bane of most gardeners and woodsmen, these virulent and productive plants are most commonly known as weeds, but they have a long history and equally long list of uses...
Today, most people only know them for their invasive qualities, and their tiny, hollow, glass needles full of formic acid which penetrate skin easily, then snap off, delivering their load of formic acid - resulting in their characteristic 'sting'.
Incidentally, the only remaining herbal knowledge in most of the population is that Dock leaves will negate that sting (once crushed to release their juice and rubbed on the skin), but the truth be told, most leaves contain alkalising properties that will do neutralise the formic acid in a nettle sting, plantain is the best.
We have the Roman's to thank for this abundant and multi-functional plant.
So that's what they did for us...
Along with apples, carrots and peas (not to mention roads, empirical medical practices, flushing toilet systems, and bath houses, etc.), the Romans brought us nettles.
They planted them everywhere they went (and let's face it, they grow everywhere) and utilised their numerous qualities :
- Food - rich in Vits A, B complex, C, D & K1, as well as masses of iron. They make great soups - wilted in at the last minute, after all the other ingredients have cooked right down.
- Nettle fertiliser - because they are such accumulators of deeper minerals, they can add flair to compost, or simply rotted down in an equal amount of water for tomato feed, etc.
- Nettle rope - once they are beaten flat, and the pith removed, the stalks of nettle produce some of the finest twine and rope available in UK, this side of hemp.
- Nettle medicine - their sting brings blood to the surface, thus they promote skin warmth, and enthuse arthritic areas with much needed blood flow.
- Nettle seeds - as usual, the seed of the plant has even greater nutrition. They can be stored over the winter as a tonic - especially kidney and adrenal.
In more modern times, we have become more experimental.
- Nettle crisps - add a flavoursome coating (ground cashew and tamari) and dehydrate like kale chips. Labour intensive, but bloody gorgeous.
- Nettle juice - at the end of my yearly fast on water for 3-5 days, I them remineralise the system by adding masses of nettles to my juice - along with sticky weed (goose grass) - another nutritious springtime hedgerow inhabitant.
That's why we are keen to pick them when they are in season - they are out in force, with all their nutritional friends - trying to get our attention from all the road sidings we go flying by on our busy, ignorant routines.
The best picking time is when they are in full, leafy flush - before the flowers appear - usually mid-spring to mid-summer. If you pick more than you need, they freeze perfectly well, or can be dried into powder to add later to soups, etc.
Once they start to flower, the energy starts to leave the leaves, and they don't look so appetising. Never mind, in a month, they will be full of seeds to start collecting.
Alternatively, you can hack them down once the leaves start to fade, and they will produce a second flush - as spotted by Nikki down by the river Dart, close to our house - harvesting wild foods in November - wonderful, another week of gorgeous, fresh nettle soup before we have to start digging into the frozen ones.
Nikki's Nettle Soupe Recipe
- 2 tsp coconut oil
- 2 onions
- 2 sticks celery
- 4 carrots
- 1 tsp oregano
- 2 cloves garlic
- 1 litre of water
- 1 TBSP vegetable bouillon powder
- Large handful each of nettle
- You can also add dandelion leaves.
- A pinch cayenne, pinch mild chilli powder (optional)
- Or for milder warmth, a pinch of nutmeg.
- For a super creamy treat, we sometimes add an inch of coconut cream block
Sauté onions in coconut oil, add herbs and spices, then veg. Cook gently for 5 minutes, then add stock, bring to boil, then simmer for about 20 minutes or until carrots are tender.
Add the wild greens and turn off the heat - so they wilt but without being overcooked.
Add a can of coconut milk and liquidize until a smooth green velvet. Serve topped with grated hard goat cheese and a sprinkle of alfalfa or other sprouts (pictured, China Rose Sprouts from our friends at SkySprouts).