This is “Be nice to Nettles Week” in the UK. So, put down that strimmer and slowly step away from the nettle patch. Not only will you save yourself some strenuous labour you will doing you and your garden a great service. Nettles (Urtica dioica), you may be surprised to learn, are one of our native hedgerow superfoods prized for their detoxifying effects. A real Spring tonic to get the system back in gear after winter. They pack a powerful punch of of silica, have vitamins A, D, K and also a considerable amount of calcium. They are a rich source of iron and can be cooked and eaten in place of spinach. Ironically, nettle pollen is a major cause of hay fever but the root of the plant itself will relieve the symptoms due to its antihistamine properties.
Nettles support over 40 species of insects, most notably the small tortoiseshell and peacock butterfly larvae. The nettle weevil feeds exclusively on the plant eating both roots and leaves helping to keep the patch in check. A plot of nettles will provide shelter for aphids over winter and the resulting springtime swarm is a welcome source of food for blue tits and ladybirds early in the season. Nettle-loving insects rely on the stinging hairs of the nettle leaf for protection from hungry livestock. Whereas insects can move about freely on the leaf between the stinging hairs, grazing cattle will avoid ingesting the plant for fear of painful stings. Even the nettle seeds produced in late summer attract many seed-eating birds. All in all it’s a year-round winner for biodiversity.
A useful Nettle Infusion
Infusion differs from a tisane in that it is brewed for a longer time. Take only the young light green growth at the top of the plant before it goes to flower. Steep a large bunch of freshly snipped nettle tops in 1 liter of boiled water that has been left to stand for a few minutes. Leave overnight. The following morning strain the liquid and drink throughout the day. I like to gently reheat it and sip from a thermos flask with a dollop of manuka honey to soften the earthiness. It is, without a doubt, an acquired taste. Until you grow to love it (and you will!) a sip can resemble a mouthful of dirty dish water. Any leftover liquid can be used as a hair rinse. The silica in the infusion adds shine and prevents dry, flaky scalp and is a terrific home-made conditioner for your locks.
I also make a nettle fertiliser every year by steeping swathes of nettles in buckets of water. I place a rock on top of the leaves and secure the bucket with a lid. The whole lot is left to stew for a few weeks. Be warned: when the lid comes off you’ll be met with a slightly offensive whiff- not for the faint-hearted. Like most good fertilisers it ain’t pretty, but your plants will love it.
So show a little compassion for the nettles in your garden- you’ll be well rewarded!