Nettle, Anyone?

I like nettles, when they’re managed – and grown in full view.

Aboriginal Australians were eating native nettles, like Urtica incisa, long before settlers introduced their northern hemisphere relatives. So they were amongst the first to learn how to ‘grasp the nettle’, so to speak.

Almost ten years ago, when living in Sydney, I recorded a segment on poisonous plants in the Herb Garden at the Royal Botanic Gardens. Amongst other things, explained how the nettle sting functions. Special stinging hairs (trichomes), break off their tips when touched, creating a needle that injects a cocktail of chemicals – acetylcholine, histamine, serotonin, moroidin and leukotrienes – causing a painful rash.

I demonstrated that either firmly grasping or running your hands up a nettle (not downwards) you can prevent the upwards facing stings from causing harm. As usual, interruptions (including poor acting) guaranteed I had to repeat this action a dozen times, by which time I had so much nettle toxin on my hand it tingled for a week afterwards.

I grew up with stinging nettles. Most of my memories of them aren’t fond, but I did find them handy, as did my grandmother. Born in Colchester (England) Winifred was a country girl and her mother taught her to harvest wild greens, including nettles. They gleaned nettles from hedgerows during spring, the only time they’re really lush, tender and worth eating. Old nettles are fibrous and gritty and, since they’re a favourite food of various caterpillar species, they’re usually heavily nibbled.

Nan made nettle soup, but more commonly she used them as spinach. So when a patch of annual stinging nettle, Urtica urens, appeared amongst my carrots, I decided to try them again, and they made an excellent spinach curry.

Historically, nettles have many uses. One of the best books on medicinal herbs is ‘Medicinal Plants in Australia’, by Cheryll Williams (Rosenberg books). Volume three says modern medicine has confirmed that cotton wool, soaked in fresh nettle juice, can stop a nose bleed. And drinking 1-2 teaspoonfuls of juice can stop a stomach bleed.

I haven’t spotted native nettles, although they’re supposed to be commonly found near rainforest margins and creeks. Nindethana Seed, in WA, are the most comprehensive seed supplier of Australian plants, but unfortunately they don’t stock native nettles.

Before chemical gardening became ‘conventional’, a thick patch of nettles indicated nitrogen rich, fertile soil, a very good sign for growers. Unfortunately, contemporary growers tend to use too much nitrogen-rich fertiliser. Silage production also risks nitrate-rich runoff, and massive nettle infestations can result. Nettles soak up nitrates, and may contain sufficiently elevated levels to become less suitable as animal fodder or human food. Mine grow in an organic garden on soil nourished by compost. Unlike fertilisers, compost never releases nitrates in a burst, consequently there’s no excess nitrates to pollute waterways or impair food quality.

Eat seedling nettles, so all that’s removed is the roots. Mature nettles were once harvested for their fibre, used to make cloth and paper before linen became popular. Leaves and shoot tips can be briefly boiled or stir fried for a couple of minutes, made into soup or eaten as a green vegetable. Blanch nettles by steaming to remove their sting before adding to salads.

Nettle tea is a useful diuretic, helping to relieve inflamed urinary tracts. The Romans encouraged urtication, a process where you lightly beat the skin with nettles after bathing. This is originally believed to have involved Urtica pilulifera, the Roman nettle, imported specifically for this purpose. Apart from improving blood flow, this masochistic process is said to reduce pain from arthritis and rheumatism (conditions the Romans believed were inevitable in England’s miserable climate).

The use of nettle juice as a traditional hayfever remedy has an ironic twist. Nettles are wind pollinated and their pollen causes asthma. Related Pellitory of the wall, Parietaria judaica, and Asthma weed, Parietaria officinalis, also cause hayfever. Both are also wild, stingless greens and their young tops can be cooked and eaten as spinach like nettles.

Unconvinced about eating nettles? Feed them to your poultry. Brenda Foot, an old gardening friend from Dorset (now deceased) claimed her chickens laid bigger, better eggs when wild, country nettles were a regularly part of their diet.

Nettles need discipline. Never let them spread, otherwise you will never again relax when hand weeding. To control, wear gloves and pull them out when they are seedlings before they set seed. Nettle debris makes an excellent compost activator. You can drown nettles and convert them into a nutritious ‘weed tea’. Cover whole plants with water for 10 – 14 days. Strain, then apply the liquid fertiliser to plants.

Nettle seed isn’t long lived and, while there are examples of their longevity, most seed dies after 3-5 years underground. Seed germinate in response to being exposed to a flash of sunlight – like when you’re hoeing – so mulching is an effective suppressant. Before herbicides were invented, farmers ploughed nettle-infested  fields at night for this one reason.

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Nettle Soup

It’s comforting to know they’re rich in iron, calcium, potassium, magnesium and vitamins A and C. There’s heaps of soup recipes on the internet and, for me, the least interesting is by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, The Guardian newspaper’s celebrity chef. Why? His recipe is really a mixed vegetable soup, so the flavour and texture of nettles is swamped. Pointless.

This recipe is my own. It tastes of nettle and retains their distinctive malachite green colour.

In Europe it’s common to use a roux mix to thicken soups. It’s a paste made by adding flour to butter melted in a frying pan and lightly, but briefly fried.

Being lazy I use potato, or taro or cocoyam to thicken soup.

Garnishing should be fun, and currently I have chervil and purple fennel available – their flavours compliment the soup.

Ingredients
(serves three)

Four good handfuls of tender, young nettle tops and side shoots
1.5 litres of vegetable stock
3 cloves garlic
1 medium onion
Three medium potatoes (or equivalent in cocoyam or taro) to thicken the soup.
Butter
3 teaspoonfuls sour cream
Seasonal garnish
Serve with fresh, crusty rolls

Peel, dice potato, then boil until soft. Drain, set aside. Chop onion and garlic, then lightly fry in melted butter. Add to potato. Boil stock, add nettles, bring to the boil again, simmering for two minutes. Strain, then add to potato. Puree the potato and vegetables, then blend thoroughly back into the stock. Reheat. Add one teaspoonful of sour cream per bowl, garnish, and serve with bread rolls.

Jerry Coleby-Williams
9th September 2012