Written by Julia Russell, herbalist and forager
The common nettle (which botanists call Urtica dioica) is the most versatile spring green. Now is the time to ‘grasp the nettle’ and see what it has to offer.
Getting to know the nettle…
Nettles are a perennial plant; dying back in the winter and growing new shoots in the spring. They have a spreading root system and they can grow up to 120 cm in height. They have square stems and heart-shaped leaves with toothed edges that grow in pairs up the stems. Its male and female flowers are found on separate plants. The female flowers are pollinated by the wind and produce hanging bunches of seed – a second way that the plant propagates itself and spreads.
Nettle is equally at home in the garden and wild spaces. Allowing a patch to thrive in your garden (or a container) will encourage wildlife and provide you with food, medicine, and even liquid feed for other plants.
Picking nettles for food
Seek out tender new growth. Pinch off the ‘tips’ – the top 4-6 leaves – and avoid fibrous stalks. Pick before the plant flowers and pick away from roads and areas where weed-spraying may occur.
Take care handling nettles
The plant is commonly known as ‘Stinging Nettle’ due to the hair-like spines which cover the plant. These hollow spines contain a cocktail of phytochemicals and can break off on contact, releasing their irritating contents. This causes an itchy skin rash with little bumps. Wear gloves to avoid stings whilst picking.
Cooking and eating nettles
The humble nettle is a real superfood. They contain minerals (especially iron, calcium, magnesium and potassium); trace minerals (including chromium, silicon and zinc); vitamins (especially vitamin C and beta-carotene (which the body uses to make Vitamin A), plus vitamins B1, B2, E and K, and heaps of chlorophyll. Basically, nettles act like a mineral and vitamin supplement, so why not let food be your medicine?
Cooked nettles lose their sting and make a great substitute for spinach. To cook them like spinach, rinse the picked tops. Add the damp nettles to a pan and steam them in the water that remains on the leaves. You may need to add another cupful of water. Once wilted, remove them from the pan and squeeze out any excess water.
Don’t limit yourself to nettle soup
Nettles shine in all kinds of dishes, especially with eggs in omelettes or with poached eggs on toast. They are good in pies such as Greek spanakopita, in Italian-inspired dishes (pesto, pizza topping, risotto, and nettle pasta), and Indian recipes where nettles can substitute spinach e.g. Nettle Paneer or Nettle Aloo.
Nettle Aloo recipe
- Peel and chop a large onion. Put it in a pan with 2 tablespoons of oil. Cook it gently, stirring often, until it is soft and translucent.
- Turn up the heat. Add peeled and chopped garlic and spices – ground coriander and cumin seeds, turmeric, whole black onion seeds and mustard seeds, optional chilli to taste. Cook for 5-10 minutes. When the seeds start popping, turn down the heat.
- Add chopped cooked potatoes and steamed nettle tops. You could also add a few roughly chopped tomatoes.
- Adding a little water, heat thoroughly, and stir occasionally to ensure all the vegetables are covered in spices.
Nettles can be juiced, or dried and powdered for autumn and winter use in soups, bread and even cakes. Historically they have been used as an ingredient in beer and wine making – nettle beer being famously made and sold in Heysham. Nettles have also played a part in cheese-making, with the juice used as a rennet substitute and the cheese wrapped in nettles during the ripening process.
Nettles in herbalism
The nutrient-rich nettle is a popular herbal medicine, promoting health by influencing the entire body. It was traditionally considered a spring tonic that builds up the body by nourishing the blood, strengthening bones and connective tissue, and as a restorative herb supporting convalescence. It has a history of use in supporting kidney and urinary health, cleansing the blood and subsequently helping clear skin conditions. Its impact on the circulatory system is widespread. Luckily this doesn’t require the traditional method of thrashing oneself with nettles to stimulate blood flow! Nettles also have an antihistamine action, which may be helpful to those who experience hay fever or allergies.
Simple nettle tea
Nettle is an excellent background herb which can be taken over time as a single-herb tea (also known as a ‘simple’). Use 1 heaped teaspoon of dried herb or 2 teaspoons of fresh herb per mug. Infuse dried herbs for 3-8 minutes, 10-15 minutes for fresh.
For more foraging information:
Visit Julia’s website, www.juliarussellherbalist.co.uk, or find @juliarussellherbalist on Instagram.