Newest Review: ... providing them with nettles by eating all the greenflies and other aphids that are doing their best to ruin your plants. Nettles can als... more
A different viewpoint on nettles
Member Name: Stewwydablue
Advantages: Many uses and benefits
Disadvantages: The sting - ouch!
Most people treat nettles with the same disdain as telephone sales calls - they're unwanted, hopefully avoided and irritating. The common nettle however has lots of different uses, and with a bit of "blue sky thinking" can be seen as much more than an annoying weed that is difficult to remove from the garden. Hopefully this review will change your opinion about nettles and show you how to embrace the presence of nettles at the back of your shrub laden borders.
Latin name Urtica dioica, the stinging nettle is found all over the world in temperate climates, from urban wastelands in the UK to caves in China. They are perennial, meaning that they will return year after year once established in a certain spot. The sting, which we've all suffered from as children, comes from a tiny amount of formic acid (the same acid that biting ants have when they nibble on us) which is located in small "hairs" along the stem and leaves. These hairs are like miniature hypodermic needles and inject their painful substance when brushed against. How many of us as youngsters soon learned to look for dock leaves to sooth our nettle-stung legs and forearms with? That's because dock leaves contain a small amount of anti-histamine which will soothe the stings, although other than that, they are actually not much use as they also contain oxalic acid which will, when combined with the formic acid, make the sting feel worse. Many think that the action of looking round for dock leaves does nothing more than take your mind off the nettle stings!
GROWING YOUR OWN
The best way of introducing nettles to your garden is to transplant them from somebody else's garden who wants rid of them. But why bother introducing this child stinging, unattractive "weed" to our gardens? - because they are excellent habitats for quite a few different species of butterflies and also attract the gardeners' friend, the ladybird, who will repay your kindness in providing them with nettles by eating all the greenflies and other aphids that are doing their best to ruin your plants. Nettles can also be eaten and used to make beer, as well as being good food for chickens and when rotted in water make an excellent liquid plant feed.
They prefer a soil that is high in nitrogen, which helps promote all that leafy growth. There's a bit of old gardeners' wisdom that weeing onto your nettle patch helps make them grow, but my garden is overlooked so I haven't tried this theory out- I'm a bit shy!
As mentioned above, they are sought out by butterflies which lay their eggs specifically onto the nettle leaves, including Red Admirals, Commas and Peacocks, so if you're keen on having a wildlife friendly garden, your nettle patch down at the bottom end next to the shed shouldn't be dug up.
If you're brave and have an inquisitive streak that would kill the average cat, whilst wearing thick rubber gloves you can pick off the top few leaves of new growth in spring, wash them, lightly boil them for a few minutes and eat them in the same way you would eat spinach. I've eaten nettles like this, and thought they were a bit "grassy", but if you mix them in well with other salad leaves they are less noticeable. Lightly boiling them renders the stings inert. You can also make nettle soup; here's how:
Wash a carrier bag full of nettle tops, and remove any large woody stalks. Don't worry about removing all of the stalks as the nettles will be getting liquidised later on. Allow to drain, and meanwhile warm up the holy trinity of soup veg (celery, onions and carrots - all chopped) in a pan with some butter. When the holy trinity are softened, add a pint of vegetable or chicken stock and throw in the nettles too. You can also add garlic, salt and pepper to your own tastes and preference. To thicken it up, I add a couple of peeled and chopped potatoes to this. Bring all this to the boil, then allow it to simmer for about 20 minutes, or until the nettles have gone soft. Carefully (don't forget it will be piping hot) start to liquidise this with a hand held liquidiser or by using a blender until all the lumps have gone. You can either eat it now whilst hot, or allow to cool and then freeze for later.
For those that make their own beer at home, nettles can be used in the place of hops. I've tasted both nettle beer and nettle cordial, and have to say I thought they were disgusting, but that's a matter of personal taste and you might disagree. I won't shamelessly increase my word count by describing the brewing method here, but if you're interested it can be found on the "selfsufficientish.com" website.
If you pick large nettle plants and allow them to dry, they can then be crushed up and fed to chickens - it encourages them to lay eggs and the chickens seem to enjoy it too. Dried nettles can also be fed to grazing animals - from pet rabbits to goats. If you want to use end of season nettles that are starting to die off as a plant food, cut them down, chop them up (you can go over a chopped down pile of them with a lawn mower) and soak in a bucket of water for a few weeks until they rot. Keep a lid on the bucket so that the rain won't make it overflow. I must say that this will stink, so don't have it by your back door. When they've rotted, dilute it with water and feed your other plants with it - most plants love the high nitrogen mix (it also contains sulphur and iron) and respond well to this sort of feed.
Nettles have long been used for treating health ailments in various forms - brewed as a tea, taken as a dried powder, mixed with ointment and rubbed into the skin etc depending on the ailment. Nettles can affect the menstrual cycle, so always get proper medical advice before you use any nettle remedies. A "wonder drug" effect of nettles is its effect on warts - squeeze the juice from a nettle onto a wart over a few days and it will just disappear! (just remember to wear thick rubber gloves when you squeeze the juices out!). Also, it works wonders for hair and will delay baldness if applied to the scalp as a "tea". Here's a little fact I found on the internet - the cosmetics company Clairol uses about 40 tonnes of nettles a year when making hair products. Not bad for a weed that most of us go to great (and often painful) lengths to remove from our gardens.
Hopefully I've changed some of your opinions about nettles and shown you how useful they can be. I know there's a stigma attached to them - you should see the look of revulsion and horror on the face of my eldest daughter when I suggest we have nettle soup for tea! If you haven't purged your garden yet and ethnically cleansed nettles out of existence, look at them in a different light this year and see how many ways you can use them. If you want to find out more about using nettles, in the month of May every year it is normally national "be nice to nettles" week (straight up!) and there is also a good book on the subject by a man called Piers Warren - "101 uses for stinging nettles" which is available on Amazon for just under six pounds brand new. Thanks for reading - it's been hard not to include any bad puns about having a sting in the tail etc!
Summary: A much maligned plant with many uses