Updated: Aug 23, 2021
Tall Nettles, by Edward Thomas (1916)
Tall nettles cover up, as they have done
These many springs, the rusty harrow, the plough
Long worn out, and the roller made of stone:
Only the elm butt tops the nettles now.
This corner of the farmyard I like the most:
As well as any bloom upon a flower
I like the dust on the nettles, never lost
Except to prove the sweetness of a shower.
I think I am about to make us unpopular in the neighbourhood: while many proud gardeners are furiously weeding-out the nettles from their spring beds, I am purposely introducing them into our small garden. Our suburb is most definitely a 'nettle-free zone', but I am about to change all that.
Until about 5 years ago, I too saw the abundance of these dark green stingers as a nuisance; more recently, however, with a foraging course under my belt and a host of delicious recipes to call on, this most common weed had quickly become a springtime staple. Nowadays, I find myself outside collecting fresh, young nettle-tips by the shopping bag-load, and enjoying an array of food for free.
It's worth being honest up-front, however: it's more challenging to handle than most food, and it requires a lot of careful washing. You will certainly need a pair of thick gardening gloves when foraging, and rubber gloves for in the kitchen. But it's worth accepting from that very beginning that – no matter how careful you are, and whatever precautions you take – you will be stung in the end!
So, what gives the nettle its vicious sting?
If you look closely at the leaves and stems, you’ll see thousands of tiny fibers. These needle-like hairs pierce the skin and inject into your skin a nasty concoction of irritants – acetylcholine, formic acid, histamine, and serotonin – and this is what causes the rash and pain.
It's worth accepting from that very beginning that – no matter how careful you are – you will be stung in the end!
The humble nettle must be one of the most instantly recognisable wild flowers in the UK, and one that is enshrined in the memory of anyone with a childhood in the English countryside. We remember our skinny ankles brushing past tender baby nettles; jumping back at the shock of the fierce and concentrated sting; watching in discomfort as the small red bumps rise and swell on your skin; the pain only relieved when a resourceful grandparent, or wise aunt or uncle, or clever parent supplies a dock leaf (always conveniently nearby); and slowly the bubbling sting is soothed (even if your ankles are now stained green).
Tall nettles make me think of my Grandad: the gardens around his cottage always seemed to have the most intimidating nettles. When my brother and I were very young, and we’d visit at the weekend, he would give us each a small scythe and show us how to tear the beasts down. I remember the sharply diamond-shaped leaves, so dark they almost seemed black. Between tentative swings of the scythe, my brother and I would look up and see Grandad’s bare arms, swollen and peppered with red stings.
Beating down these looming shadows – some taller than me – a cloud of colourful wildlife would spring into the air: butterflies like the Red Admiral and small tortoiseshells (once a common sight, but now much rarer) and moths; all would flee as we shock the stems, flying up into the sky like plumes of colourful fluttering smoke.
A very useful weed!
We forget the that nettles provide shelter, protection and food for a huge range of creatures: birds, butterflies, hedgehogs, shrews, and, of course, bees. Nettles are particularly popular with aphids – and, by extension, the colourful ladybird – and I wonder then if nettles in the garden are a good way of distracting aphids from your roses! My mother always kept a healthy number of nettles in the garden to encourage wildlife.
My Mother used to tell me of her and her brothers whipping my Grandad with nettles to relieve his arthritis.
The nettle is not only a vital food source for insects, but have historically been wonderous for our health too! Young leaves have remained a common medicinal ingredient, as well as being highly nutritious. Even nettle stings are said to have health benefits: I always enjoyed the story my Mother used to tell me of her and her brothers whipping my Grandad with nettles to relieve his arthritis. This story has always fascinated me; though I’m sure there were probably kinder ways to have treated him! It’s not only arthritis that might be relieved by the common nettle, but also hay fever, diabetes and gout.
The metre-high monsters I used to tackle with my brother and grandad were far too thick and insect-laden to be used for cooking, but the fibrous stems can be used to make textiles, and during the Second World War, children were encouraged to collect nettles so they could be used to produce a dark-green dye for camouflage. This is something that particularly interests me, and I would love to have a go at using nettles in this way, so watch this space!
The arrival of the early spring nettles, their emerald green leaves appearing in the roadside hedgerows or amongst the seedlings of flower beds, is one of those seasonal delights that forms a highlight of my year. There’s a surprising amount you can do with nettles: from cordials, beer and tea, through spicy green soups and pasta sauces, to toppings for pizzas and tarts. The nettle is as versatile as spinach.
I begrudge paying £2 for nettle tea in the health shops when it grows wildly, unstoppably for free on my doorstep.
I like to dry the smaller leaves for tea: I begrudge paying £2 for nettle tea in the health shops when it grows wildly, unstoppably for free on my doorstep. It can be added to pasta, as a fabulous alternative to spinach on a pizza, or added to rice as a colourful side for an early BBQ.
But for my favourite nettle recipe, I must give a shout-out to John Wright's Hedgerow River Cottage Handbook its nettle soup recipe (see our reading list for details, or read the recipe online), which I look forward to this time every year: I make a good batch for the freezer to enjoy throughout March. I promise you, this soup will make you very popular!
So when should you pick nettles, and what are you looking for?
I always pick nettles at the start of Spring, the plants are young and tender and have not yet flowered. I also find that the earlier you are able to pick them, the fewer insects will be hiding on the leaves and stuck to the needles on the stems. It's a real challenge to wash bugs off nettles, so I know when to call an end to nettle season when they are swarming with black fly and other creepy-crawlies.
Only pick the tips of the plants, usually the growing-tip and the first few pairs of leaves. Avoid the tough stem and lower leaves. Also, be careful where you pick your nettles: the immediate verges of busy roadsides and footpaths should be avoided due to car fumes and dog pee. You’ll need a good thick plastic bag to collect your produce, and a strong pair of gardening gloves, unless you want to be covered in stings before you have even made it back to the kitchen!
I find nettle tips keep well when bagged up in the fridge for a few days. If you have collected more than a bag and want to store for another day, my advice is to quickly blanch them in boiling water, then freeze them in an airtight bag until needed, and use as your would spinach.
The most arduous part of the process (and, if I am honest, my least favourite part) is washing the leaves. To do this, I fill the sink with cold water and throw the whole bag in. With rubber gloves on, I painstakingly clean and check each leaf, and once I'm happy I add it to the colander to dry, discarding any leaves as I go. I often repeat this process to catch any bugs that made it past my first rinse. Perhaps I am overly fussy, but I like to be thorough, so I just have to accept that for me this stage of the process takes longer than the fetching, the cooking, or the eating!
Nettle season is now upon us, and I am excited at the thought of heading out and collecting bags of this free bounty. Over the coming weeks, I hope to share a few of my favourite recipes, and if you have any favourite recipes of your own, we would love you to share. Time to get picking!