Nettles are ubiquitous, prolific, cosmopolitan. They sprout behind our bins and between the cracks in pavements, they fill alleys and building sites, colonise the banks of roads and railways; they love a rich soil, but they’ll grow anywhere. They grow where humans live, everywhere, from the stable to the station. They’re first on the scene as the spring sun lifts the sky bluewards, lush carpets of green, protected by their stings… we’ve all felt that, right? But the sting is easy to bypass (by the cunning use of gloves) and worth it – nettles have got a lot to give, and at just the right time – a warming, nutritive boost, cleansing and steadying, to ready us for the waking year.
Nettles are found on every continent of our little globe – except Antarctica which is, frankly, forgivable. Historically native to northern Europe, the sheer extent of their stomping ground has suggested that humans may well have been involved in their wider distribution. We’ve used nettles for centuries, since at least 750BC, and probably long before. They are fabulously useful plants – medicinally, and nutritionally, as well as for making fibres for rope and cloth, as an animal feed and even as a substitute for rennet in cheesemaking. Archaeologists have found fabric made of nettles in burial grounds from the 2800 year old Lusehøj Bronze Age Textile from Voldtofte, Denmark; nettle cloth was the silk of the prehistoric wardrobe.
Nettles come up early – one of the first flushes of green as spring rolls out. And they can do that because they have amazing roots – bright yellow and incredibly strong, they forage through the humus and gather the nutrients the plant needs to produce new leaves, ready to grab the spring sunshine before the trees wake up and start to dominate the canopy. By eating nettles, we are harnessing the power of those hungry, questing roots, and the rich chlorophyll laden sunshine munching leaves. Its fabulously rich in vitamins – A, C, some of the Bs, as well as protein, iron, calcium and magnesium and an abundance of amino acids. As a herb, both the leaf and the root are used, in differing ways. Nettle tops are great for cleansing the blood, eliminating toxins, and have been used since Egyptian times against arthritis. They are anti-inflammatory, anti-histamine, and can help soothe eczema. The root is diuretic, and is thought to be useful in treating prostate problems.
But the leaves are the easiest to use, and are great as a simple tea or as an ingredient. The tips of the plant, the top 4-6 leaves, are the tastiest. Wear gloves! Have I said that already? I’ll say it again – wear gloves, and put the nettles in a dish or bag as you pick, so it’s easy to transfer them when you get to the kitchen. Use them like spinach or chard. They’re best finely chopped – I find the easiest way is to blanch them to destroy the sting, and then chop, but you could just wear gloves to chop them raw. They make an excellent soup, richly green and flavourful. Finely chopped, and cooked with spices and potato, they make very good ‘spinach aloo’, or can be pan-fried in butter (or a good oil) as a side dish. For a spring tonic, place about a cup of nettle leaves in a pan with about two cups of water. Bring the water to a bare simmer and cook for a few minutes. Strain the tea, sweeten if you really want to, and enjoy.