This week we are taking a closer look at a plant many people see as a so-called ‘weed’. However, with so many uses, in my opinion it feels criminal to even consider it as a weed. The plant in question of course, is Urtica dioica, commonly known as Stinging Nettle.
U.dioica is a herbaceous perennial which can grow up to 2 m tall at a fast pace no less. It is in leaf from early spring and flowers from late spring to mid autumn, with seeds ripening from early summer to mid autumn. Stinging nettles are dioecious, meaning they have flowers which are either male or female on separate plants. So in order for them to set seed male and female plants need to be fairly close together. The pollen from the male plant is dispersed via the wind so it can easily reach far away female plants within the same area. The flowers are small, greenish white and borne on a densely clustered, elongated inflorescence located towards the top of the stem. One of the key characteristics about U.dioica is the stinging hairs on the plant which can leave an unpleasant tingling sensation when touched. While the discomfort can last for a while, it is not dangerous. U.dioica is tolerant of most soils and will grow in sun or shade, however nutrient rich soil that is kept moist is preferred.
It may not be known by many, but stinging nettles support over 40 species of insect including small tortoiseshell and peacock butterflies. Nettles developed stinging hairs as a defence against grazing animals. Very few grazers can handle the stinging hairs and so nettles are a perfect spot for many insects as they can easily move between the stinging hairs and are at low risk of being accidentally consumed by a grazing animal. Nettles also function as great spots for overwintering aphids, which provides ladybirds with plenty to eat in spring. These aphids also feed small birds which can dart between the stinging parts of the nettles. Even when they set seed in late summer, nettles provide an abundance of seeds for seed eating birds .
Most people who have ever ventured outdoors will have no doubt been stung by a stinging nettle at some point, which has resulted in the plant receiving a lot of bad press. However, the stinging hairs are harmless when the plant parts are properly prepared, so there is no need to worry about stinging your mouth when eating the leaves. When gathering nettle for eating it is important to harvest the young shoots at the top of the stem as older leaves develop gritty particles called cystoliths which can lead to kidney problems. To ‘disarm’ the stings, simply blanch the leaves before using them in whatever recipe you may have in mind. They can be used in salads, soups, pesto, and much more. Nutrients wise nettles are an incredibly nutritious food, high in minerals, particularly iron and vitamin A and C.
Nettles have long been used in tonics and are still highly used today. The herb has many herbal actions; astringent, diuretic and tonic. An infusion of the leaves can be drank as a tonic to strengthen the entire body. Nettle can be taken as a tincture to help combat allergies and also works very well in treating skin conditions, such as eczema.
The stems of nettles contain tough fibres which can be used in textiles, and were in fact used like this to great effect in Austria and Germany during the First World War. Nettles are also used in dyeing fabric, permanent green dye can be obtained from the leaves and yellow from the roots. The juice of the leaves can also be used to curdle plant milks for dairy-free cheeses.
At Wildlife & Eco Gardens we often use nettles as a highly nutritious feed for our plants. This can easily be achieved by soaking the plant material in a covered tub of water for 1 – 3 weeks. A great bonus about using nettle feed, is that it also acts as an insect deterrent, so you can keep away insects wanting to eat your edibles without harming or killing them. Interestingly, when nettle is grown near to other plants, it causes the other plants to produce more essential oils, making them more resistant to insect pests.
There are many more uses for nettles, this blog post has only touched the tip of the iceberg lettuce. With all the amazing uses for nettles, why not allow a small patch in your garden to grow, wildlife will benefit and you could even try out some of the uses mentioned above. Keep an eye out for future recipes on our website featuring nettles.
Wildlife & Eco Gardens can not take any responsibility for any adverse effects from the use of plants. Always seek advice from a professional before using a plant medicinally.