For obvious reasons, stinging nettles are one of the very first plants children learn to identify. As they grow literally everywhere and are safe* for most people to use, nettles are a great herb to experiment with if you’re new to medicine making or foraging.
Stinging nettles grow in such abundance (there are over 500 species worldwide,) their valuable properties can be harnessed for free by almost anyone, anywhere on the planet. Because of its peculiar ability to inflict pain on those who attempt to uproot it, most people think of the nettle as a troublesome weed. Ironically, this is what has most likely saved it from being totally wiped out by humans, who spend millions of pounds on chemicals trying to eradicate it.
Every part of the stinging nettle has some benefit to mankind, so treating it as an invasive weed really does mean missing out on an herbal bonanza.
A sensible word of caution:
*Picking or consuming stinging nettles is not recommended for people who suffer from severe allergies. Although nettles are an extremely safe plant to work with, a small number of people have been known to develop an allergic reaction after being stung. If you’re at all unsure then don’t pick!
Always wear thick gloves when harvesting nettle. However, in most cases even gloves won’t protect you. Elbows, knees and other areas of skin can easily be stung, so be sure you’re well prepared before venturing out to forage.
A few interesting facts about stinging nettles:
- Nettles are rich in vitamins A, B, C, D and E, as well as being an excellent source of minerals like calcium, potassium, sodium, zinc, iodine and of course, iron. During the first and second world wars nettles were considered to be a valuable food item, without which, many people would have starved.
- Evidence unearthed from Bronze age sites in Denmark shows that stinging nettles have been used to make clothing for almost 3,000 years. The tough fibre obtained from the stems of the plant was woven into a durable cloth, which was then dyed a deep green colour using dye obtained from the leaves. During the First World War, nettle fibre was collected on a huge scale in Germany and Austria to make military uniforms.
- The fibre from the stinging nettle plant has also been used to make paper and bank notes.
- Fresh nettle seeds can be crushed, and the oil used in lamps.
- Each year, Dorset in the UK hosts the annual world nettle eating championship. This bizarre eating contest sees contestants attempt to eat as much of the raw plant as possible. Whoever strips and eats the most nettle leaves within a fixed amount of time is declared the winner. The competition dates back to 1986, when two neighbouring farmers attempted to settle a dispute about who had the longest stinging nettles in their field.
- Nettle vinegar is a delicious blood cleansing remedy traditionally used by herbalists as part of a spring cleanse.
- Here in Cornwall, nettles are used in the production of a traditional cheese known as Cornish Yarg. Yarg is Gray spelt backwards. Named after the enterprising farmers who found a 1615 recipe for a nettle-wrapped semi-hard cheese in their attic, the cheese is made according to an original recipe thought to date back to the 13th century.
Cooking with stinging nettles
Nettle has a similar flavour profile to spinach and can be cooked in much the same way as any leafy green vegetable. When preparing the leaves, it’s important to first soak them in water and cook thoroughly in order to neutralise the sting. A quick online search for nettle recipes will bring up a whole host of ideas from nettle kombucha to pakoras. An easy and versatile recipe to start with is one of my favourites – nettle pesto.
Recipe for nettle pesto
Delicious stirred through pasta, added to omelettes, or used as a pizza topping. This is a great way to make use of your foraged stinging nettles or garden waste.
- A small bowl of freshly picked stinging nettles
- A handful of pine nuts
- 45 g of Parmesan cheese
- 4 cloves of garlic
- 140 ml of olive oil
- 10 ml of lemon juice
- A generous sprinkle of salt and pepper
- Optional: 1/4 teaspoon of chilli flakes
- Wash your nettles. A colander, sieve and some marigold gloves will help avoid stings.
- Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil. Add your nettles and boil for two minutes. This will neutralise the chemicals that cause the sting.
- Remove the nettles from the pan and plunge them into a bowl of cold water.
- Toast your pine nuts in a dry pan (no oil) until golden brown.
- Add the nuts, garlic, Parmesan, salt, pepper and lemon juice (and chilli flakes if you’re using them) to a food processor. Pulse for a minute or two until the ingredients are adequately combined.
- Remove your nettles from the cold water and squeeze out as much water as you can.
- Add the nettles to the food processor, and pulse the mixture again for 30 seconds or so, until it’s green and grainy.
- Whilst your food processor is still running, slowly drizzle in the olive oil until the pesto reaches the desired consistency.
- Transfer your delicious creation into a sterilised jar and store in the fridge. If you can resist the temptation to eat it all in one sitting, it should last for about a week.
If you’re feeling a little more adventurous, you can use nettles to make a delicious, creamy, vegetarian cheese. The process does require a little commitment, but you don’t need to invest in any specialist equipment. My forager friend Monica Wilde from Napiers explains the step by step process in her detailed blog post.
Stinging nettles for hair care
Herbalists often recommend stinging nettles as a treatment for scalp problems. A decoction made from the roots and seeds (as opposed to the leaves,) can help stimulate hair growth and prevent thinning. It has also been shown to be helpful in the treatment of dandruff. Nettle root extract is commonly found as a component of many herb based, over the counter shampoos and conditioners.
Nettle and rosemary hair wash:
It may seem a bit odd pouring what is essentially herbal tea over your head, but this potent mix of nettles, rosemary, apple cider vinegar and water will add shine and body to your hair. It gives it far better texture than any conditioning treatment would, and without the use of any harsh chemicals. Rosemary stimulates circulation to the scalp, nettles provide mineral-rich nourishment, and the addition of raw apple cider vinegar helps to balance your hair’s pH levels. You can use fresh or dried herbs to make up your batch, but it won’t last long, so be sure to use it on the same day.
*Rosemary can darken hair over time, so this particular blend is better suited to darker tones. If you have blonde hair, try swapping the rosemary for chamomile flowers, which will help highlight any natural golden tones.
You will need:
- A handful of nettles
- A handful of rosemary (or chamomile)
- 50 ml organic, raw apple cider vinegar
- 1 litre boiling water
- 2 litre Kilner jar
*Never pour boiling water straight into a glass jar as it can break! Use a Pyrex bowl for infusing the herbs, or gently preheat your Kilner jar in advance to prevent shock to the glass.
- Add the plant material to a pan of boiling water. Cover with a lid and allow to infuse overnight.
- Strain out the herbs and add 50 ml of raw apple cider vinegar.
- Wash your hair as normal, using the preparation as a final rinse. There’s no need to wash the tonic off as the vinegar won’t smell once your hair dries.
Gardening with stinging nettles
Nettles contain a wide range of minerals which as well as being good for us, also make a brilliant food for plants. The following is a recipe for “stinging nettle manure,” (probably because of the smell it gives off as it brews!)
DIY nettle fertiliser
Rather than throw nettles you’ve cut back from the garden into your green waste, here’s a simple way to use them to make a nitrogen rich fertiliser for your plants.
This easy to make preparation is great for:
- Protecting your garden flowers from pests and disease
- Spraying on tomato plants to help boost growth
- Rescuing house plants from aphid infestation
Loosely fill a bucket with chopped nettle stems and leaves and then cover with water. Hold the plant material down with bricks to keep it submerged. Leave the bucket in a shed or other covered area for about 3 weeks and allow the plant material to ferment. It can get quite smelly as the nettles decompose, so it’s advisable to leave your homemade fertiliser in a well ventilated area at a sufficient distance away from the house.
After about 3 weeks, strain off the liquid and dilute 1 part fertiliser to 5 parts water (for the garden) and 1 part fertiliser to 10 parts water for houseplants. Voila! You’ve made your own natural fertiliser!
You’ll find more projects and recipes like this in my Wild Medicine Through the Year Nettle ebook, which is also available as part of my bitter treats bundle, along with locally grown and harvested tea and whole plant tincture.