The common nettle is, in my opinion, a misunderstood plant. I think almost everyone in the UK who has spent any time in the countryside has a story about how they fell in a patch of stinging nettles. Because of this they get a bad reputation and most people are a little frightened of them. In my case I have many childhood memories of being stung, then rummaging round looking for dock, or ‘doctor leaves’ as they are known in my family, to try and ease the discomfort.
Nettles are part of the Urticaceae family and are found almost all over the world and tend to be a good indicator of moist, nitrogen rich soil. This is why they are often found near livestock fields, dung heaps, riverbanks and hedgerows. As most gardeners know once they get going its incredible how fast they can take over an area.
There are six subspecies of nettle, not all of which sting; the five that do are all covered in small hollow hairs that are full of a chemical called histamine. When you come into contact with these hollow hairs they act like thousands of hypodermic needles that inject the chemical into the skin thus causing a painful sensation. For nettles this is a highly effective method of protecting themselves from hungry herbivores. How ever, nettles are an important food source for both the peacock and small tortoiseshell butterflies, as well as a large number of moths and other insects which in turn pollinate and continue the spread of nettles.
Nettles produce a lot of seed but it often doesn’t travel far from the plant, which is why they are often seen growing in clumps. They can also spread by rhizomes. Having both options means if the plant is damaged or burnt it will quickly re-establish and over take other plants.
Nettles have been used in traditional medicine for hundreds of years and although they have great ability to cause discomfort they are also said to alleviate symptoms of allergies, hay fever, muscle cramps, joint pain and urinary issues. This is due to their high numbers of nutrients and minerals. It is also excellent for your compost heap (without the seed heads) for the same reason.
Nettles can be made into tea and there are many entire cooking books dedicated to cooking with nettles. They can be used any of the ways you might cook spinach, as well as being a great ingredient in soups, smoothies, pesto, risotto and many, many more. I have recently been enjoying them in soup and pesto, and hold out hope that they are going to reduce my hay fever symptoms!