A while ago now I made a lovely little ezine which I called ‘Nettle Soup‘. All of the articles therein are now archived into this website and I will be adding more using the ‘posts’ facility. They are indexed above by category under ‘CONTENTS’ above.
But first – in praise of my favourite plant – the stinging nettle.
LINKED PAGE CONTENTS:
- THE STINGING NETTLE
- WHY DO NETTLES STING ?
- HOW TO FIND NETTLES
- PICKING NETTLES
- EATING NETTLES
- COOKING NETTLES
- NETTLE SOUP RECIPE
- GROWING NETTLES
- NETTLE CURES AND REMEDIES
- OTHER NETTLE RECIPES:
- MAKE CLOTH FROM NETTLES
- STUDENT SHOWS OFF NETTLE KNICKERS
- NETTLES AS A BUSINESS
Nettle Soup is my favourite wild recipe. As the years have gone by, each year I find out more and more about this wild and very common plant and it has become a favourite for me.
Astrologically the stinging nettle plant is ruled by the planet Mars, which gives me a strong affinity as an Aries with Scorpio rising – both signs are ruled by Mars. Nettle is also a most useful herb for men as it consists of proteins, calcium, phosphorus, iron, magnesium, beta-carotene, along with vitamins A, C, D, and B complex. Nettle has a high amount of iodine which is central for thyroid gland efficiency as it regulates the body’s “internal thermostat.” Fortunately it also makes a tasty beer!
Botanically the plant is described thus: a perennial plant which grows upto 2 to 3 feet in height and erect in summer dying down to the ground in winter. It has a creeping and widely spreading root, which is yellow in colour with rhizomes and stolon. The leaves are borne opposite on the stem and they are about 3- 15 cm long. The leaves have a strongly serrated margin, a cordate base and an acuminate tip with a terminal leaf tooth longer than adjacent laterals. The leaves and stems are hairy with both stinging and non stinging hairs which turns to a needle when touched and injects a mixture of histamine and formic acid thus causing the irritation and because of this it derives the common name, as well as the colloquial names burn nettle, burn weed, burn hazel. They bear small greenish or brownish 4-merous flowers in dense axillary inflorescences.
The name ‘nettle’ comes from an old Scandinavian word ‘Noedle’ – meaning ‘needle’ in reference to the stinging parts – which underrates this most useful plant. The stinging part of a nettle is its defense from herbivorous animals. The leaves are covered with tiny hairs that terminate in a small head covered by a silicified, cellular membrane. The fragile ends break off even when the leaf is gently touched, or especially when gently touched if you believe the old adage:
Tender handed stroke a nettle,
And it stings you for your pains;
Grasp it like a man of mettle,
And it soft as silk remains.
I certainly don’t. They just sting even more ! As the needle breaks off into the skin it injects its venom and causes local irritation and later an interesting tingling sensation that can last all day or even longer. Getting your hand wet can just set it off again!
The venom was once thought to be made of formic acid – similar to an ant sting but recent research shows a more complex mix. Other chemicals include histamine, 5-hydroxytryptamine (serotonin) and acetylcholine. A fourth ‘mystery’ ingredient has yet to be identified.
Dock plants are often to be found near stinging nettles and rubbing dock leaves on the skin until it goes green can relieve the mild venom. Some people put sticky tape over the sting and then pull it off to remove the needles but I am not sure if this works.
Nettles grow all over the UK and US but are hard to find in drier parts of the world. Nettles are thought to have found their way out of the UK due to John Josselyn a seventeenth-century English traveler, whose books give some of the earliest and most complete information on New England flora and fauna in colonial times. Nettles also grow wild in Southern Africa, and in the Andes, and even in areas of Australia. Nettles are mainly concentrated in the Northern hemisphere although the plant is also found in Japan.
Stinging Nettles love a fertile soil, rich in phosphates and nitrogen, often provided by human habitation which includes old pig and cattle-pens or places where excrement was once in plentiful supply, bonfire sites, refuse dumps and churchyards. They are abundant on cultivated land, in woodlands, on riverbanks and in hedgerows throughout the British Isles.
There are several types of nettle in the UK but this site is concerned with the Common Nettle or Stinging Nettle – Urtica dioica. It is described as “…a coarse perennial covered with stinging hairs, with tough yellow roots which form expanding patches of nettles. Four-angled stems have opposite, ovate, pointed and toothed leaves, the lower with blades longer than their stalks. Flowers are small, in loose axillary spikes, males and females on separate plants; greenish petals four. Fruit small, about 1.2mm, ovoid, flattened. Flowering: June – August”. From ‘Wild Flowers of Britain’ and Europe by Bob Press and Bob Gibbons.
It was the first day of spring in Cornwall, with warm sun and a brisk wind from the west as I set off to pick some. Many Lesser Celandine had flowered that morning and I was the first to see them, Primroses too and just a sign of Earthnut leaves coming up. I have a regular spot for this at the lower edge of a field that gets the sun but is protected from the north and east by woodland. It’s a good spot and I found that a colony of moles had set-up camp there since I last visited. I have picked nettles from an area protected from the elements even at the beginning of February but it takes a while to pick enough nettle leaves for soup at this time of year.
You can pick the tiny nettle heads quite easily with scissors, then lift them into a container, using the scissors as tongs. Cut them carefully, avoiding any discoloured leaves that might be ‘frost caught’. They’ll grow back again quickly and you can keep a harvest of fresh tops running into summer by regular soup collections. Its been such a mild winter in Cornwall this year that some of the nettles were re-forming on last year’s stalks, but there were also many new growths, tiny little leaves just poking through. Yummy. Nettle soup is just my favourite. Get it early in the spring because the plants toughen up quickly, and mature plants can be dangerous to eat as the ‘stingers’ don’t break down as easily.
Be careful where you gather the nettle tops. Avoid fields that get sprayed, roadsides or other chemical contamination. If possible take them from a wild place that isn’t interfered with.
Having written that I put them in a plastic bag because I knew they would be home in minutes, simmering on the stove, but normally an open basket of some kind is better for gathering wild food. It’s quite easy to pick the nettle tops and prepare them without being stung at all.
Eating nettles is not as daft as it sounds. Besides the soup which is gaining in popularity, a famous Irish dish called ‘Brotchan Neanntog’ contains nettles, along with a broth of water, nettles, salt, milk and oatmeal. It lost popularity to the cabbage but the recipe was in still in use in poorer areas of Ireland 100 years ago. Samuel Pepys reports enjoying nettle porridge on February 25th, 1661 although no details of the recipe are given in his diary.
Scott, the author of ‘Rob Roy’, has the gardener in this book raising nettles under glass as ‘early spring kail’. Another interesting Scottish recipe I found in ‘Food for Free’ by Richard Mabey is for Nettle Haggis: “…nettle puree is mixed with leeks and cabbage, freshly fried bacon and partially cooked oatmeal (or rice or barley), and the whole boiled for an hour or so in a muslin bag, and served with gravy”.
As a straight vegetable, prepare the nettle leaves as for soup, and boil them in a very small amount of water or stock, in a closed saucepan for about 4 minutes. Again make sure that only young leaves are used as the older they become the harder it is to break down the silica that makes up the stinging parts of the leaf. Strain off the water, even pressing slightly through a sieve, then serve with a knob of butter and a generous twist of black pepper if that is to your taste. Real country spinach !
The recipe I use is from ‘Wild Food’ by Roger Phillips – a real treasure. I can never enthuse about this book enough. Fresh made stinging nettle soup has a deep and layered, yet delicate, flavour. The taste of nettle soup varies considerably depending on the ‘terroir’ of the nettles, how warm the weather is and what stage of growth of the plant. Sometimes it has a gamey flavour and sometimes the active constituents provide a fizzy soup that is most unusual! There’s something intensely green tasting about the soup, you can feel it doing you good (a serotonin hit).
To make delicious nettle soup, all you need is a bagful of nettle leaves, about the size of a football, for four people. Also:
- 1 large onion and garlic cloves to taste
- 2 or 3 potatoes
- olive oil, salt and pepper
- some stock or a stock cube (chicken or vegetable)
- cream to taste
Preparing nettles for soup
Firstly prepare the nettles. Wash and drain them. Trim the stems out of the nettles you have picked, leaving just the fresh, young leaves. Go through them carefully separating stalk from fresh leaf and discarding any discoloured or dubious looking leaf. You can do this easily by picking up the nettle tops by the main stalk, compressing the leaf stalks together with your fingers and cutting across the tops with scissors. If you are worried about being stung – wear some gloves.
Making Nettle Soup
Then chop up the potatoes, onion and garlic and sauté them in a 2 litre saucepan with a splash of olive oil and a bit of butter to taste. When the onion starts to soften and the potato is forming a slight crust, drop in the nettles and give them a quick whisk around with a spatula. Add a litre of boiled water and your stock. Stir it all up and let it bubble for about 12 minutes, or until the potato is soft.
Put it through a liquidiser once it has cooled, then return to the pan to warm it when you are ready to serve. To serve, pour the soup into a bowl and add some cream. Swirl the cream around with the back of a spoon to make an interesting shape. Add salt and pepper to taste. Roger Phillips suggests serving this soup with butter-made croutons although I prefer it without. It is also nice with a drop of wine.
Freezing Nettle Soup
Nettles are at their best in the spring and become inedible after June as the leaves become brittle, so you may want to store some. Nettle soup freezes very well, but leave out the cream as this is best added as a fresh ingredient. Used fruit-juice cartons, with screw caps are an ideal way to freeze nettle, or other soups, provided you can get the soup into the top. To do this I usually cut the top off a plastic drinks bottle and invert it as a funnel so that the still slightly warm nettle soup pour into the carton more easily. Leave a space in the top as the nettle soup will expand slightly as it freezes. Store the carton upright if there is room in case your deep freeze accidentally defrosts.
Nettles were once cultivated in Scandinavia and they were grown under glass in Scotland as ‘early kale’. They are very easy to cultivate and can be transplanted just by digging up some wild root and bringing it into the garden. Alternatively nettles can be cultivated from seed planted in spring in a loamy and moist soil in sun or light shade.
Nettles are a powerhouse of stuff we need after winter. The leaves contain both iron and vitamin C to aid iron absorption. There are other minerals such as calcium, potassium and silicic acid in addition to flavonoids, phenols and chlorophyll. The roots have lots of polysaccharides, several phenolic compounds, lecithin and sterols.
German studies in 1999 show nettles to have a strong anti-inflammatory action. The leaves are rich in histamine – which can help with allergies. Also they contain serotonin – another very valuable compound for positive being. For this reason nettle is a useful tonic and it can be prepared in several ways.
Nettle tea is good internally for rheumatic pains. As a mild diuretic nettles can help to eliminate sodium and urea from the body, hence easing rheumatic and arthritic complaints. Their high iron and vitamin C content can help with anaemia. Nettle tea also provides a relief from sunburn if applied cool to the afflicted skin. It also makes a cleansing and scalp stimulating hair rinse.
Nettles are also an astringent. As such, they are sometimes used to decrease unwanted prostrate growth. German research in ‘Planta Medica’ in 2000 observed that the root inhibited the growth of prostate tissue. However do not self-prescribe for prostrate enlargement (benign prostatic hyperplasia) – seek advice first as part of a medical or holistic treatment. Nettles as an astringent have also been used to help with removing blood in the urine and other ailments of the urinary tract, haemorrhoids and excessive menstrual flow.
As a tonic in beer, tea or soup they strengthen the whole body. The high salicic acid content in the plant can also help with eczema and the dried leaves make an easy poultice for some joint pains. Add the dried leaves to hot water to make a porridge that can be applied externally when cool enough. Flogging the affected part with nettles was once called ‘urtification’ and was used for rheumatic joints. A remedy with its own hypodermic needles built-in ! I quite enjoy being (slightly) stung by nettles when working in the garden.
Hildegarde of Bingen in her Treatise on Physic recommends eating the young shoots of nettle as a tonic:
“Nettle is very hot in its own way. It is not at all good eaten raw, because of its harshness. But, when it newly sprouts from the ground, it is good when cooked, as food for a human. It purges his stomach and takes mucus away from it. Any kind of nettle does this.”
She also suggested preparations of nettle, to cure internal worms in humans, internal discomfort in horses, and even as a treatment for senility:
“And, a person who is unwillingly forgetful should pound stinging nettle to a juice, and add a bit of olive oil. When he goes to bed, he should thoroughly anoint his chest and temples with it. If he does this often, forgetfulness will diminish.”
The seeds of the nettle plant were once considered to have aphrodisiac qualities.
Gerard claims Nettles as a remedy against hemlock, bad mushrooms, quicksilver and Henbane, also against the bites of serpents and scorpions. An oil made from the leaves will take away the sting that “itself maketh”.
In all nettles are a most underrated plant. Their association with a ‘poverty diet’ has caused their use to decline. I predict a return to popularity of this most useful and nutritious plant.
Cautions : Apart from the obvious stinging sensation (other varieties of this plant can be extremely vicious), please do not eat old leaves as they can produce kidney damage if the needles do not break down. Internal use of nettles can cause skin rashes if taken over a long period, so just take it for two weeks out of three. Nettles can also cause gastric inflammation in some cases so watch out for this. Avoid nettle treatments altogether if taking medication for diabetes, high or low blood pressure or to depress the central nervous system. Do not take nettles if pregnant or breastfeeding. Although nettle juice has been used to increase lactation in nursing, fennel is probably a more useful herb for this as it doesn’t have the possibility of gastric irritation.
I enjoy this delicious, summer drink and other people who have never tried it are just ‘amazed’ at the refreshing taste. You will need:
- 2 lbs of young nettle tops
- 2 lemons
- 1 gallon of water
- I lb of Demerara sugar
- 1 oz Cream of Tartar
- Brewers’ Yeast
Prepare the nettle tops as for the soup by washing and sorting. Put them into a large saucepan with the water and thinly peeled rinds of lemon. Bring to the boil and simmer for fifteen to 20 minutes. Strain the mix onto the sugar and stir to dissolve. Add the Cream of Tartar and leave the mix to cool to yeast temperature. Add the yeast and lemon juice.
Cover the mix and leave it somewhere warm for three days – its OK to put it into a demijohn at this stage or to use a fermentation bucket if you are making more than a gallon. Then let it cool down for a few days to knock the yeast back. You can bottle it now but be prepared to use old cider bottles or something strong as the mix can be explosive.
I have even made nettle beer with white sugar and baking yeast and it is delicious, although it does need racking off a bit more. Remember that this drink is not a wine but a fizzy summer drink – it is not really meant to be kept although I have a bottle that is 8 months old and still tasty, even noticeably alcoholic. If this drink loses its fizz or is drunk by elderly relatives, children or drivers, it can be diluted with soda, tonic water or lemonade.
Drying nettles stops the sting effect and the leaves can then be stored and used for tea.
Prepare the nettle leaves as for the soup and leave them out in the sun to dry, in a container with sides so they don’t blow away! They can also be dried inside over a radiator or near a stove, but turn them regularly and make sure that no rot sets in. Store them in a moisture-proof jar out of sunlight.
To make a nettle tea, pour boiling water over 2 – 4 grams of the dried herb and leave to steep. To ease rheumatic pain, fatigue or poor appetite, drink three cups a day.
The leaves do not have top be dried to make a tea – it can also be made from fresh leaves. The leaves and roots are also crushed to produce fresh juices. It is also possible to take this herb in capsules, as a dry extract or as a tincture.
I have tried this several times. Simply gather some prime young leaves, crush them with a rolling pin and mix them in with vodka, shaking occasionally for two weeks or more. The tincture can then be diluted in water as a treatment. Mine never makes it this beyond two weeks since I have run out of vodka by then and it makes a fantastic flavoured and scented vodka and tonic.
A green dye can be made from the leaves of the nettle plant. In the Second World War many tons were gathered to make dye for camouflage nets. The roots can also be harvested to make a yellow die.
Add nettles liberally to your compost bin. Cut them down and let them dry in the sun, then move them to soil as a top dressing. You can also pack nettles into a bucket with a lid and add water. Leave it for a few weeks, stirring occasionally to make a great liquid feed. Use it 1: 10 with water for fertilising container and garden plants or at 1:5 for a spray for aphids and blackfly. Put the spent nettles onto the compost.
There are several creatures who manage to circumvent the stingers in nettles and to them, nettles are a sole source of food. Caterpillars of some of the most beautiful butterflies feast on nettles which is why it is important to cultivate a patch in your garden. The Red Admiral, the Peacock, the Small Tortoiseshell, the Map Butterfly and others all feast on nettles. Young spring nettles also provide a useful food source for goslings and ducklings.
The fibrous stems of nettles were once used to weave a rough cloth. Evidence from Neolithic settlements in Switzerland shows that nettle was used to make cloth before linen or wool. The processed fibres of nettle stalks make a strong white thread that has even been used for fishing line and nets. Maude Grieve says in her book ‘A Modern Herbal’ that nettle fibres were being used in the 16th and 17th centuries to make sheets and tablecloths.
Hans Christian Anderson’s famous fairy tale called “The Wild Swans” tells an enchanting story of the nettle coats she wove for them to break a spell:
“Look at the nettle that I hold in my hand! Around the cave where you are sleeping grow many of them; only those nettles, or the ones found in churchyards may you use. You must pick them, even though they blister and burn your hands; then you must stamp on them with your bare feet until they become like flax. And from that you must twine thread with which to knit eleven shirts with long sleeves. If you cast one of these shirts over each of the eleven swans, the spell will be broken…”
Folklores say that a fever could be dispelled by plucking a Nettle up by its roots, reciting therby the names of the sick man and also the names of his family. Nettle is considered to be one of the nine sacred herbs, along with mugwort, plantain, watercress, chamomile, crab apple, chervil, and fennel. It certainly has a long history of use.
The ‘bark’ stem of the nettle plant contains pliable fibres that can be woven, spun or twisted to make cloth or cordage. Although we are reinventing the art of making cloth from nettles there are still places where it is done. For example a cloth called ‘ramie’ is made from the fibres of an Asian nettle (Boehmeria nivea). Nettle is still collected and processed in the Himalayas. The ‘bark’ is stripped from the plant and dried for 3 days in the sun. Then it is put in a pond for 10 days and then rinsed in running water, then spun into a rough yarn. The same process doesn’t seem to work for European nettles though as they just break down in the water.
There is a strong movement to reinstate cloth made from nettle and nettle clothes are already to be seen on the catwalks of fashion houses. Industrial processes are leading to a much more useable cloth although designs are presently limited to ‘outer’ clothing.
Here is a Youtube video on how to make knitting yarn from nettles:
Austrian Chemist finds Profitable uses for a Common Weed
Berlin, May 1 st (Correspondence of the Associated Press) – Professor Oswald Richter, an Austrian Chemist, has discovered that a nettle fibre of high value for making textiles can be recovered easily and cheaply by the water rotting process, that a rich yield of fruit sugar is thereby steeped from the plants, and that the stems make an excellent fodder. It all depends, however, upon knowing how to supply the water.
Investigators had all along made the mistake of assuming that nettles should be rotted like flax; that is, thrown into water and left there till the plants were sufficiently rotted to permit the separation of fibre and wood. This method failed completely with nettles, for the rotting process attacked the fibre as well and destroyed it.
Richter found the reason. Nettles contain much fruit sugar, which is all steeped out during the first half day that the plants lie in water; and then a fermentation process sets in. This fermentation is due to the development of bacteria that feed upon the sugar and then destroy the value of the fibre. After Richter established these facts, he had only to draw off the water after soaking the nettles for twelve hours, and then turn on fresh water. Now another class of bacteria, which do not attack the fibre, is developed, and rotting proceeds as normally as with flax.
The machinery for separating fibre and stalk is the same as for hemp, and existing spinning and weaving machines are used in making nettle cloth, with probably a few minor changes. The cloth is already being actually made in Austria. About 1,000 tons of the fibre were produced there last year under the auspices of the Government, which turned it over to various factories to be worked up. It is asserted that the fibres are from two to twelve inches long. After having been washed in a soap solution they are very soft and produce a cloth having a fine lustre. The yarn is pronounced considerably stronger than flax yarn, hence nettle cloth should prove remarkably durable.
While the supply of wild nettles in Germany and Austria is practically inexhaustible, it is assumed that is will be necessary to cultivate the plant in order to get the best results. In that case practically the only expense will be to plant the fields once with roots of the wild nettle and harvest the crops during the next ten years, no further planting will be necessary. A German writer estimates that under the least favourable circumstances nettle fibre can be laid down at the factory at 14 cents a pound, which is hardly more than the average price of cotton in Germany before the war. His calculation ignores the value of the fruit sugar and the refuse. As Richter found that the sugar contained in the bark of the plant runs as high as 8 percent, he concludes that it is one of the most valuable sugar plants known in Europe. Also he found that cattle prefer the stems to most other kinds of feed, and the leaves are also eaten by them with relish. In view of these facts it would seem that the practical cost of spinning fibre might be considerably reduced below the figure mentioned.
The New York Times. Published May 14 th 1916. Copyright The New York Times
A set of underwear made from stinging nettles has been designed by a university student as part of a new research project. It is hoped the “nettle knickers” is the first step towards a commercial application for the plants.
Leicester’s De Montfort University’s “Sting” project is researching potential for nettle fibre as a crop and market. The research is funded by Defra; and the Central Science Laboratory, in York, is also involved in the project. Textile design student Alex Dear, 23, from Cambridge, wrote a dissertation on nettle fibre as part of a three-year textile design and production degree. She has been modelling the camisole and knickers, which she designed herself.
She said: “I investigated and tested the fibres and had the yarn made up. It is a slightly hairy fibre. Just for fun I made the lingerie, which I called Nettle Knickers.”
Nettle yarn was used to make rucksacks for soldiers in the First World War. Ms Dear said: “It’s not terribly comfortable when it’s next to your skin, so anything you made from it would probably have to be lined”.
Ray Harwood, Professor of Textile Engineering at De Montfort University, said nettles had great potential. “I am sure it would find a place in corporate clothing, workwear and the like.”
Copyright BBC NEWS CHANNEL Thursday, 1 July, 2004
When I think about the ‘free resource’ of nettles and the amount of cotton farmers in India and other places being squeezed out by biopiracy and poisoned by fertilisers, and their children used as virtual slaves in manufacturing processes, I wonder why nettle cloth is not used far more in the Northern Hemisphere.
Nettle growing on a commercial basis is a possible ‘carbon nuetral’ business with no waste. Besides the herbal and medicinal uses, its manufacture into cloth looks highly viable. Localised materials, one planting for ten tears of harvest, high levels of extractable fruit sugar and the dried waste material useable as cattle fodder – Its just bound to happen !
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