Stinging nettles are often hated, always feared and rarely invited to dinner. And that’s a shame because this herb packs an astonishing wallop of great health and eating in every bite. In other words, bite back! Just don’t eat the mature leaves raw, since that would be the equivalent to squatting down in a patch of poison ivy. Same pain, different cheeks. However, once the leaves have been wilted, dried or cooked they no longer sting.
The proper Latin name for stinging nettles is Urtica dioica. Uritca meaning ‘to burn’. And baby, do those leaves burn! But fortunately that’s not all they’re good for. Nettles have been used for centuries as a potential cure for everything from the common cold to cancer. The leaves are rich in calcium, magnesium, iron, potassium, phosphorous, silica, iodine, sodium, sulfur, tannin, beta-carotene and vitamins C and B. In fact, there is not a single vegetable in your garden that packs more protein than the stinging nettle. So if all you ever manage to successfully grow in your garden is weeds, there is no need to despair. If you learn how to harvest those weeds might end up healthier than the neighbour with the pristine patch of vegetables. While we’re on the subject of weed nutrients versus those of vegetables, here are a few other interesting comparisons:
Protein content of Broccoli – 3.0 mg
Protein content of Lambs Quarters – 4.2 mg
Calcium content of Leaf Lettuce – 18 mg
Calcium content of Purslane – 65 mg
Magnesium content of Spinach – 49 mg
Magnesium content of Dock – 63 mg
What do Lambs Quarters, Purslane, Dock and Stinging Nettles have in common? They’re all classified as weeds. So when that neighbour looks askance at your weed patch, look him square in the eye and say, “Yeah well, I used to grow vegetables too, but then I decided to use the room for more nutritious plants instead.”
But back to the winning merits of the green dragon.
Recent studies indicate that nettles are a natural antihistamine and enjoying a daily cup of nettle tea can alleviate seasonal allergies such as hay fever. Nettle tea heavily laced with honey and lemon is also a great decongestant when you’re suffering from a cold or flu. As if getting rid of your red eyes and running nose hasn’t made you attractive enough, regular ingestion of nettles also leads to thicker hair, clearer skin and stronger nails. For all you know, a lack of Stinging Nettles are all that’s keeping you from striding down that catwalk with an angry expression on your face and pulling in seven figures a year as a super model. Nettles can even provide you with a whole new wardrobe. During the first World War, nettle’s fibrous stems were used in place of cotton.
Nettles pack the greatest potency in their earliest spring shoots, but can be harvested all summer long for fresh tea, drying or for greens. However, by fall the leaves will start to get tough and lose a lot of their nutritional value.
To dry nettles, cut the entire plant off at the stalk (be sure to wear long sleeves and gloves!) tie into bundles and hang in a dark, airy place until completely dry – usually five to seven days. Of course, if you have a dehydrator that works great too. Store the dried leaves in glass jars with plastic lids. Herbs keep their nutrients best if left in their full leaf state and crushed up as you need them.
Here are some great uses for nettle. Warning! Keep in mind, as with all herbs, that if you’re pregnant or taking medication, you should always consult your doctor before indulging in herbs of any kind.
Spring Tonic Tea – Toss a handful of freshly washed leaves into a heated tea pot. Cover with boiling water and steep. Serve with honey or lemon. Don’t pour out the leftovers! Stored in the fridge Ice Nettle Tea is just the boost a gardener needs on a hot summer afternoon. It also makes nourishing water for houseplants.
Winter Tea – For a winter pick-me-up pour 250 ml (1 cup) of boiling water over 10 ml (2 teaspoons) of crushed dried nettles.
Mock Parsley Sprinkles – Add dried finely crushed nettle leaves to soups, stews, cottage cheese, eggs or any dish that could use a lively dash of green. This is a great way of sneaking extra nutrients into your family’s daily diet!
Nettle Seed Salt – Collect seed clusters and dry thoroughly. Pulverize the seeds with a mortar and pestle or put them in a blender. Makes a healthy alternative to salt.
Stinging Nettle Pot Herb – Nettle leaves are similar to spinach only milder and more tender, especially when young. Simply steam or boil the leaves until tender and then season with butter, cheese, sauce or lemon juice.
Nettle Quiche (my favorite nettle recipe of all!) –
unbaked pie shell, 250 ml (1 cup) grated sharp cheddar cheese, 500 ml (2 cups) cooked nettles drained, 57 ml (1/4 cup) minced onion, 4 eggs, 170 ml (3/4 cup) light cream or milk and salt, pepper, cayenne to taste
Sprinkle cheese in bottom of chilled pie shell. Spread prepared nettles over cheese. Beat remaining ingredients and pour over nettles. Bake in 400 F oven for 15 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 F and bake another 30 minutes or until custard is set. A knife inserted into the centre should come out clean.
Even if you have no interest whatsoever in nettle’s culinary properties, your garden can still benefit from its presence. Not only does stinging nettle make neighboring plants more insect resistant, but its high iron content helps other plants become less susceptible to slugs and snails during wet weather. Mint, valerian, sage, marjoram, mint, angelica and tomatoes are especially strengthened by having nettles growing in their vicinity. A ratio of one nettle plant per 10 of the other plants is perfect, but given nettle’s highly invasive properties it can be a challenge keeping them down to just one! Nettles in the orchard will deter fermentation, keeping fruit trees free of mold. Nettles (as well as Yarrow) act as a natural accelerator for compost heaps. So if you must pull it up, at least put it in the compost so you can reap its benefits there.
Using a high power blender add equal amounts of nettle greens to water. The resulting liquid can be froze in ice cube trays to give a nutritional dash to soups or smoothies or used to make a liquid fertilizer for plants.
You can also use nettles to make an all natural fertilizer for your garden or houseplants. Simply pour water over a bucket of nettles and then let the mixture sit in a warm place until it you can’t stand the smell. You will end up with an iron rich solution perfect for promoting healthy foliage and building up humus in the soil. Clothespin for your nose optional. Mix the fermented brew with rainwater (if you have it otherwise tap water is fine) at a ratio of 10:1 (ten parts rainwater/one part nettle garden tea). Some people spray the solution directly on their foliage with great success, but others claim this leads to burning the leaves.
If you try out all these uses for nettles the unthinkable might occur – you might run out of nettles! Nah. It will never happen. Not only does each plant produce thousands of seeds that practically germinate the second they touch the ground, nettles also spread rapidly by root. So once you have them, you will never get rid of them, which turns out to be a good thing, not just for you and your garden, but for butterflies too (see end of article for more on how stinging nettles are necessary for butterflies).
To sum things up, it’s not the nettle we need to get rid of, but our hateful attitude towards it. So pull on your gloves, grab a basket and get ready to bite back with a vengeance. I guarantee once you’ve experimented with nettles, you’ll never look at them in the same way again. In fact, you may even welcome them into your garden with open arms. Long sleeved and gloved open arms, but open arms just the same.
Some Nettle Recipes…
Cream of Nettle Soup –
.45 kg (1 pound) of nettle leaves 30 ml (2 tbsps.) oil or butter 1 minced onion 20 ml (4 tsp.) chopped chives 45 ml (3 tbsp.) flour 500 ml (2 cups) chicken or vegetable stock 250 ml (1 cup) water 10 ml (2 tsp.) seasoned salt 5 ml (1 tsp.) fresh ground pepper 250 ml (1 cup) cream
Heat oil or melt butter in soup pot. Sauté onion until soft. Add chives and flour and stir until blended. Slowly stir in stock, beating with wooden spoon until smooth. Add remaining ingredients, except cream, and heat to boiling. Reduce heat and simmer 20 minutes. Add cream and once again heat to just boiling. Taste and adjust seasoning as needed. Pour soup through a sieve into heated tureen. Sprinkle with nutmeg and enjoy!.
Stinging Nettle Hair Tonic –
For shiny hair, simply simmer 3.75 litres (4 quarts) of freshly picked nettle leaves in .95 litre (1 quart) of water for three hours or until infusion is strong. Cover and let steep until it cools. Strain. Add 125 ml (1/2 cup) cider vinegar, bottle and cork. This solution can also be massaged into the scalp as a potent dandruff treatment.
A parting tip…
In the early spring it is possible to forgo the gloves but you have to be confident. Grasp the stem of the nettle quickly and firmly right at its base and you won’t get stung! If you have any qualms whatsoever, by all means glove up. If you do get stung rub the affected area with a dock or plantain leaf which–perhaps by grand design–are usually growing nearby. Some people believe getting stung by nettles is actually beneficial. I know one person who suffers from arthritis and swears that a deliberate interaction with a nettle patch helps alleviate the pain.
Others plant nettles in their garden to deter human thieves. See 12 Ways to Stop Human Garden Thieves and One Cautionary Tale
Nettles are also Necessary Butterfly Havens
Those of you who cultivate butterfly gardens already know that many species of butterflies and moths depend on the nettle for their survival. This may seem odd, given the nettle’s inhospitable properties. After all, apart from a few sheep, goats and herb healthy humans, few animals dare to venture near nettles. And that’s precisely what makes the insects relationship with this plant so perfect. Since there is little risk of the adult insects or larvae ending up in the stomach of an animal, the nettle patch provides them with a safe haven in which to lay their larvae, or simply hang out, ensuring the survival of these beautiful winged insects.
Nature is amazing.
In fact, some species won’t leave their larvae anywhere else. If you’re worrying about the larvae ending up in the stomach of a human–namely your own–fret not! Butterflies seek out mature nettle patches in which to lay their larvae and since you’ll be harvesting the bulk of your nettles while they’re still small, there’s no need for concern. However, if you’re still harvesting once summer arrives, you might want to quickly check the underside of the leaves, just to be certain. Otherwise it could give a whole new twist to the expression, “I have butterflies in my stomach.”