Along with Dandelion, Stinging Nettles (Urtica dioica) must be at the top of the "well known weeds" list. But unlike Dandelion's benign sunny cheeriness, the Nettle's sting gives it a less than friendly image. This negative image is compounded by its tendency to skulk around in the cool shadowy places. Yet, it is its very choice of environment that gives Nettles its greatest value.
As I said in a previous blog, I coined the phrase "wind shadow" (not to be confused with "moon shadow" which was following Cat Stevens) to describe the area around trees that is defined by the pattern in which prevailing wind's scatter the leaves. It is in this space that Nettles tend to thrive. In the shadow around the trees, moisture is less readily lost and the soil is enriched by the leaf compost that contains the nutrients brought up from deeper within the ground by the tree's massive roots.
In this sense I get an impression of Nettles as a sheltered and indulged child. It is this very nature that gives us an insight into the deeper value of Nettles, rich in nutrients, as they function to rid the body of the acids formed by the indulgences of winter. In more natural times, we would have survived the winter by stocking and eating cured meats, seeds, nuts and grains. The metabolism of these foods leave acids in the body. It is for this purpose that Nettles arrive so early on the scene in spring. Combined with its common companion Clivers ( Galium aperine), which, in its structure, illustrates a signature suggesting the fine lymphatic system and its inflammed lymph nodes, the two work well together to clear the blood and lymph of impurities. In the photo I took above, you see them living harmoniously together.
Another idea I put forward a few years ago, when I did a talk to my professional peers on the doctrine of signatures, is that of a recurring signature being found in various herbs with a common application. In the case of Nettles we see in the irritating scratching and stinging a similarity to the scratching of Clivers or of the scratchy burrs of Burdock, all of which have application in skin manifestations. This understanding is illustrated again in the cilia like hairs found on the leaves of Mullein, White Horehound, Coltsfoot and Marshmallow, all of which are used as expectorants in lung conditions.
One symptom of blood impurity is skin disease. Where applicable, Nettle is one of my top choices for tackling this manifestation of systemic imbalance. The affinity Nettle's have with conditions of the skin is evident in the red welts that contact causes. However, what is even more fascinating is a condition known as Urticaria or Nettle rash (based on the botanical name for Nettles, Urtica dioica) that mirrors the symptoms of Nettle contact with the skin but develops independently without such stimulation. One explanation for this outbreak is that of an allergic reaction by contact or ingestion, of certain trigger substances. However, like in many skin conditions, emotional stress can work as a catalyst heralding an onset of the itchy rash. I believe this could be connected to the Fight or Flight (or is it Flight or Fight) mechanism clearing the body of toxic obstacles to the optimal function required to cope with a sudden crisis.
Nettles are high in nutrients such a vitamin C, iron, calcium and silica, which give an indication of its value in restoring blood quality as well as its impact on tissue and various other illnesses.
As a food, plants have their greatest value in the raw state, as cooking usually devalues their nutrient content (although in some cases, cooking renders some poisons inert, making certain plants ingestible). Obviously, with its painful stings, Nettles present a problem. As another string on my bow, I trained as a Chef. While helping a Chef friend of mine at a function near Salzburg in Austria, I noticed they had Wiesenkräuter Salat (Meadow Herb Salad) on the menu. To my surprise, one of the ingredients was raw young Nettle sprigs. I asked the Chef preparing the salad if this was not a problem for the guests? He assured me that if you sprinkled water on them it neutralised the sting! I have walked in shorts through nettles on a rainy day...and can assure you they were less than neutralised! All I can say is, I did not witness any guests running out of the room after the first course....I do not recommend it...but leave it up to you.
One way to get the best out of Nettles as a food is to prepare it as a tea. Although there is heat involved, an infusion is a much gentler approach than cooking, and will leave some nutrients intact in your tea.
Another favourite is Nettle puree on baked potato, or as a soup. While I was waiting to lead my latest herb walk, I struck up a conversation with a group who were talking about making Nettle soup. They were not impressed with the flavour. Personally, I find it better than cooked spinach ( my view is spinach should never be cooked...but be used in salad with freshly grated parmasan cheese). One of the problems is people tend to over-cook vegetable. This leads to a grey, rather than green, colour. One step I take to avoid this is to only blanch the Nettles briefly in stock, then remove them while they are vibrant bright green and finish the process by cutting them with a knife. In the meantime I reduce the stock they were blanched in, then thicken and season. I put the stock and nettle into a blender and puree. Then serve immediately with freshly grated nutmeg and a whirl of cream or sour cream. Why not give it a try?
There is so much more I could write about Nettles...being so complex that they are...but this will do for today. I hope you begin to see them for the gift that they are and welcome them into your garden...and use them to their fullest.
Health and Happiness
The Green Man.