Updated: Jul 21, 2020
Urtica Urens, known and felt by all as 'stinging nettle', is one of our most common and useful of edible plants. Abundant in almost every sort of environment, including waste ground, wet woods, hedge banks and river valleys, with a particular penchant for carefully cultivated ground.
Identified as a 'coarse upright plant', growing to 120cm high, covered with stinging hairs on heart-shaped, toothed leaves (Mabey 2007). Nettles are found in temperate regions the world over and have many legends attached to them. In Scandinavian mythology, the nettle was sacred to the God of Thunder, Thor.
Throwing a plant into the fire during a thunderstorm would protect your house from lightening. Our Roman invaders reputedly planted nettles along the roads they built, thrashing themselves to warm their blood in an attempt to stave off the driving British rain. First Nation and European herbalists recognised the value of the leaves. When brushed against, a sharp point is exposed, penetrating the skin and releasing a histamine stored at the hair's hollow base. It was this property, which made it suitable for treating aches, pains, gout and arthritis (Corkhill 2011). Our ancestors also used nettles to make rope and hard wearing cloth. In recent history, the Germans used nettle fabric to make army uniforms in the First World War, when cotton ran short (Butler 2003)
It is the presence of stings, developed as a defence against grazing animals, which allowed relationships with insect species to develop, creating an ideal habitat for adults and their larvae. Insects, unlike us, are able to move between the tiny hairs without breaking them (CONE 2020). The most notable nettle patch inhabitants are the 'small tortoiseshell and peacock butterly larvae, feeding in large groups hidden in silken tents at the top of the stems. Many nettle patches house overwintering aphids, which swarm around the fresh spring growth, providing an early food source for ladybirds. A veritable spring feast for blue tits and other agile woodland birds (CONE 2020).
If unlike the Romans and Scandinavians, you own a raincoat and sturdy roof, then perhaps you could try making a nettle soup or infusion. The leaves contain iron, vitamins A and C, which reputedly aids iron absorption. They also contain calcium, potassium, silicic acid and a remarkable 5.5 per cent of protein (Mabey 2007).
An infusion:- To treat rheumatic pain, fatigue and poor appetite (Butler 2003)
Put 2 to 4g of dried nettles into 1 cup of boiling water,
Drink 3 times daily.
To make a delicious soup (Adapted Mabey 2007)
4 large handfuls of nettle tops, N.B Don't harvest nettles after the beginning of June as the leaves become bitter and have a laxative affect!
1 large onion,
1 litre of vegetable or meat stock,
Seasoning to taste and a little grated nutmeg,
1 tablespoon crème fraiche.
Strip the nettles from the thicker stalks and wash,
Melt the butter and simmer the chopped onion in it until golden,
Add the nettles and chopped potatoes and coop for 2 to 3 minutes,
Add the stock and simmer for 20 minutes, using a wooden spoon to crush the potatoes from time to time,
Add the seasoning, grated nutmeg and serve with a swirl of crème fraiche.
If you prefer a smoother soup, put the mixture through a liquidiser before serving. Reheat, adding the seasoning and crème fraiche.
Butler C (2003), Nature's Medicines, 1st Ed, The Reader's Digest Association Ltd,
Corkhill M (2001), Natural Remedies – Self Sufficiency, London, New Holland Publishers Ltd,
Mabey R (2007), Food For Free, 3rd Ed, London, Harper Collins Publishers,CONE (2020),
Be Nice to Nettles Week, http://www.nettles.org.uk/nettles/wildlife.asp, 12th May 2020.