There’s more to nettles than soup.

To your Joe blogs stinging nettles are a pain in the whatever part of your body you accidentally get in contact with them. I am still emotionally scarred from childhood with my first go on a bike with toe straps ending upside down in a nettle-filled ditch whilst wearing shorts and t-shirt! Foragers all know that nettles are good things, with nettle soup being the classic dish. But there are lots more things to do with nettles beyond soup.

We probably all have nettles growing with a couple of hundred metres of us. Self-preservation means that it is a plant that practically everyone learns to identify as a child! Nettles prefer rich soils and are often found near current or old habitation.

The stinging hairs on nettle are hollow spines (think hypodermic needles) that contain a cocktail of irritating chemicals. When you come into contact with them the tips are broken off and the sharp point penetrates the skin releasing the chemicals into your skin. Again from childhood, you know to  hunt down a dock leave when you get stung. There is, however, no scientific reason why this should work. The arguments about acids being neutralised by alkalis don’t add up. Perhaps it is a placebo effect.

The Chemistry of Stinging Nettles
The Chemistry of Stinging Nettles

Picking

The nettle season can start as early as February and carries on through the spring. While you can “grasp the nettle” and pick carefully without gloves you will eventually get stung; gloves and scissors are highly recommended. For culinary use, you just want to take off the top few leaves on young nettle plants. You don’t need to strip the leaves from the top part of the stem, use that as well. After the end of Spring, don’t pick from nettles that are in flower or gone to seed – the stems are tough and contain crystals that may irritate the kidneys. To maintain fresh, young growth you can cut nettles back and then harvest from the new shoots. This way you can have young nettles for many months – “cut and come again”. There is also often a second crop of young growth in the later Summer and early Autumn.

“Non-culinary” uses

Fabric

For much of the last 2 millennia clothing was made from nettle fibres. In the 16th Century they lost popularity when cotton arrived as it was easier to harvest and spin.  Nettle fabric made a comeback during WWI, when cotton shortages meant nettles were used to produce German army uniforms. Today cotton accounts for 20% of global pesticide use. Concern over such environmental damage has led to a hunt for new, ecologically friendly fabrics such as from bamboo and nettle fibres. A student in Leicester made “Nettle knickers” as part of her dissertation on nettle textiles!

Paper

The fibres can also be used for paper-making. There is a great step-by step illustrated guide here.

Yarn / Rope (cordage)

You can make yarn (or cordage) from nettle stems later in the year. Combine these and you could climb up a rope made from nettles! In this video Ray Mears shows how to make nettle cordage.

Dye

Nettles have long been used for dyeing fabric. Stems and leaves produce a permanent green dye, while a yellow dye can be obtained from boiling the roots. In WWII they were used for dying camouflage nets. See here for guidance on dyeing wool.

Liquid Plant Feed

Soak nettles in water for a fortnight, stir occasionally to make liquid plant feed. Use it 1: 10 with water for fertilising container and garden plants or at 1:5 for a spray for aphids and blackfly. Put the spent nettles onto the compost.

Medicinal uses

Stinging nettles have long been used for medicinal purposes. They have been used as a diuretic and blood tonic as well as for treating conditions including rheumatism, eczema, arthritis, gout, and anaemia. Today they are used for treating urinary problems and infections, kidney stones, hay fever, joint pain, sprains and strains, tendonitis, and insect bites. Recent studies are beginning to confirm that certain traditional uses have scientific validity.

Culinary Uses – Leaves

Stinging Nettles
Young stinging nettles – perfect for picking.

While you have to be fairly mad to eat them raw some do. West Dorset is home to The World Nettle Eating Championships  (2012 video). The 2015 winner ate a record beating 76 feet of nettles!

Nettles are good for you. Compared to Spinach, they have over twice the protein, 6 times the vitamin C, twice the iron and four times the calcium.

They are used commercially for wrapping Cornish Yarg Cheese. You can also buy them in the wonderful Northumbrian Nettle Cheese as well as a nettle cordial, beer and, of course, as nettle tea.

 

To Drink

  • Nettle tea / tisane –  Simply add water to fresh or dried nettle leaves and heat until nearly boiling. Use roughly two cups of water for a cup of leaves. You can make the tea stronger by steeping longer, or weaker by adding more water. Once the water is near boiling, reduce heat and simmer for a couple minutes. Enjoy “neat” or with dried Elderflower petals.
  • Nettle syrup / cordial. You’ll be amazed – this has become one of my favourites. You expect it to be green but … it’s red! As well as drinking it with cold water, you could dilute it with wine or have it with hot water for a winter health boost. Other uses might be drizzled on ice-cream, rice pudding or pancakes. I might even try a Nettle Drizzle Cake! One commercial product adds Blackcurrant leaves.
Nettle Cordial
Delicious Nettle Cordial
Nettle Beer Ingredients
Nettle Beer Ingredients

 

To Eat

Your imagination is the limit to recipes for nettles-based dishes. They are very versatile and can be used to replace spinach in any dish. Cooked nettles can be eaten as a vegetable (prepare like spinach, then optionally add a little butter and / or nutmeg) or added to lasagne, quiches, curry, meat loaf,  etc. Below are links to a selection of recipes to try.

  • Soups  There are numerous variations – “neat”, with wild garlic or ground elder, hot or gazpacho. Freeze in old fruit juice cartons or plastic milk bottles. Fairly standard recipe here.
Nettle Soup
Nettle Soup

Culinary Uses – Seeds

While most foragers are familiar with the use of young nettle leaves in dishes such as the above. There are some uses for nettle seeds. Gather these in late Summer or early Autumn.

Stinging Nettle with seeds
Stinging Nettle with seeds

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