You’ll know if you accidentally run into a patch of stinging nettles.
When you brush against them with bare skin, the delicate, needle-like hairs that cover their stems and leaves break off and inject you with irritating chemicals that feel like a host of wasp stings.
But if you do suffer such encounter, count your lucky stars. Guard the spot carefully. Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) is a plant of a thousand uses—nutritious food, medicine, tea herb, cheese-flavoring agent, beer, herbal fiber for weaving, fertilizer, dyestuff, laydybug attractant, important food source for butterfly larvae.
Although alarmed when I first found nettles running amok in my raspberry patch, I’ve found the job of preventing them from taking over furnishes me with good foraging every spring.
I’ve since found a much larger wild patch a few miles down the road. I keep that spot a secret.
Gobble ’em up
Young nettles rank among the yummiest, most nutritious of green vegetables. Light cooking eliminates the sting. A rich source of calcium, iron, magnesium and other minerals, and of
vitamins C, A and B complex, they also contain more protein than other green vegetables (dried leaves are 25 percent protein).
For the best eating, pick the top three or four set of leaves while the plants are just a few inches tall. To harvest stinging nettles without getting stung, wear long sleeves and rubber or leather gloves. Rinse them well in a colander, remove any debris, and wear kitchen gloves if you plan to chop them.
For centuries, nettles have served traditional cultures as medicine to treat a variety of ills. Dried nettle leaves and roots make both delicious tea and a nourishing hair rinse.
Gardeners have long used fermentations of nettle leaves to fertilize and protect crops.
Dairy farmers use nettles as a flavoring ingredient (or wrapper) for gourmet cheeses.
Another innovation you may find soon at your local trendy clothing boutique: clothing made from nettle fibers.
Be nice to nettles
The wise Brits of the Cramlington Organization for Nature and the Environment so value the role of the nettle in the natural world, that they sponsor a Be Nice To Nettles Week.
And if you have bit of a moist, rich soil lying fallow and find a patch of nettles going to seed, perhaps you’d like to create your own backyard nettle patch.
Margaret Boyles lives in a wood-heated house in central New Hampshire. She grows vegetables, eats weeds, keeps chickens, swims in a backyard pond in summer, snowshoes in the surrounding woods in winter, and commutes by bike whenever possible.