Common Name: Nettle
Scientific Name: Urtica dioica
Family: Urticaceae (Nettle)
The familiar stinging nettle is common and easily recognizable, as well as being one of our best foraged foods.
The tall dark stem (up to 1m) and toothed, heart-shaped leaves are covered with stinging hairs. The flowers grow in tassels from each leaf node, ripening into green then brown seeds in September.
There is a tradition of “3 feeds of Nettle before May” which tells us two things:
1)that it is a valued spring tonic, providing greens (anti-oxidants and other phytonutrients), vitamins and minerals to the diet after the stored food of winter, and
2) that Nettles are best eaten young (ideally when there are 4 leaf pairs or less) as they are tender at this stage.
Nettles can be used to replace tender greens like spinach in many recipes, or to make the classic nettle soup or a nutritious pesto. The leaves are high in protein (5.5%), vitamins (including A & C) and minerals (2.3% iron, phosphorus, manganese). As they grow taller and go into flower, Nettles develop strong fibres which makes them less palatable for soups but still fine for making Nettle tea (fresh or dried) until the seeds form. The flowers mature into tassels of seed, which are easily stripped with the fingers for a quick nutty snack while walking, full of omega 3 fats.
The leaves and stalk are covered with stinging hairs that release and inject irritant histamine-containing juice when broken. To protect the Nettle against stinging itself, its cells contain a histamine-blocker, so ironically it is useful for treating allergies and itchy reddened skin. As a good source of iron and other minerals, Nettle is useful in treating anaemia. It is also a diuretic that helps release uric acid from the body, so can assist with preventing gout. The roots have traditionally been used to treat urinary tract infections and prostate enlargement, while the seeds boost energy.
Recipe: Nettle soup
½ carrier bag full of nettles (young tops / leaves)
2oz (55g) butter
1 large/ 2 medium onions finely sliced
1 large carrot chopped (optional)
2 celery sticks (optional)
1 large garlic clove (optional)
1 litre good stock (veg/chicken/fish)
Pinch of grated nutmeg (optional)
3 tablespoons cooked rice or 3 rice cakes (to thicken)
2 tablespoons cream / crème fraiche
Chopped chives / chervil / parsley
Pick over nettles and wash them thoroughly, discard tougher stalks. Melt butter in large pan and sweat onions (plus carrot / celery / garlic) until soft but not brown. Add stock and pile in nettles. Bring to the boil and simmer for 5-10mins until nettles are tender. Season with salt, pepper, nutmeg if you wish. Puree soup in a liquidiser with the cooked rice / rice cakes. Return to the pan, stir in cream and reheat gently.
(From Hugh Fearnely-Whittingstall’s the River Cottage Cookbook)