While weeding my garden beds this spring, I discovered a little nettle plant in the path and pointed it out to my wife Rachel. Rachel then decided it would be a good idea to point it out to our children, so they would know what nettles look like and be able to avoid getting stung.
I agreed, so we called the kids over and I got to play Dad the Science Lecturer, one of my favorite roles.
DAD THE SCIENCE LECTURER: “See this here, children? This is a nettle, known in Latin as Holicow datstings.”
CHILD #1: “Can you eat it?”
DAD THE SCIENCE LECTURER: “Yes, but don’t touch it! You have to cook it to disable the stings. It would hurt if you touched it now.”
CHILD #2: “I want to touch it!”
MOM: “No, darling – don’t touch it. They really, really sting!”
DAD THE SCIENCE LECTURER: “That’s right. Take a closer look. See the little hairs on the leaves? They’re like needles – like going to the doctor for a shot.”
CHILD #3: “I also want to touch it. It won’t hurt me.”
MOM: “Yes it will! Don’t touch it!”
DAD THE SCIENCE LECTURER: “You know, if you really want to know why you shouldn’t touch it… maybe you should touch it, just a little – for science – and you can see how bad it stings.”
MOM: “I don’t know if that’s a good…”
CHILD #4: “Look, I can touch it!” (touches it) “OWWWWWWW!!!”
DAD THE SCIENCE LECTURER: “There, now – that’s why you shouldn’t touch nettles! See?”
CHILD #1: (touching the nettle) “OWWWWW!!!”
MOM: “Look, Child #1… you saw Child #4 touch the nettles and get hurt… why did you touch it too?”
CHILD #1: “WAAAAAA!!! I just wanted to see if it would sting me too… WAAAAAAAA!!!”
CHILD #3: “I still don’t think it’ll hurt me if I’m really careful.” (touches it) “OWWWWWWWAAAAAAAAAAAA!”
MOM: Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea…
CHILD #5: “Hey, what are all you guys doing over here? Touching that nettle? I’m gonna do it too!” (touches it) AWWWWWWAAAAHHHOOOOOOOOWWWWW!”
DAD THE SCIENCE LECTURER: “Science!”
Nettles are well-known for the pain they inflict on unwary foragers, hikers and gardeners. People spend lots of time and money trying to get rid of them… and it’s hard not to get ticked off at a plant that stings like fire.
Yet… if you step back… there are plenty of reasons to keep this plant around. Let’s take a look at this nasty weed’s good side.
Nettles Are Good Food
Nettles are well-known as a healthy edible… though you might not want to eat them raw. When cooked, they have a hearty green taste which may be improved through steaming or by mixing nettles with other vegetables, according to famous forager “Wildman” Steve Brill. I don’t mind strong tastes, however, as evidenced by my love for home-grown tobacco and sauerkraut.
For a truly gourmet approach to nettles, here’s a really sweet little video my wife sent my way:
Nettles Are Medicinal
Nettle tea is a common home remedy for fighting off illnesses as well as promoting hear growth, among other things. According to A Modern Herbal:
“Preparations of the herb have astringent properties and act also as a stimulating tonic. Nettle is anti-asthmatic: the juice of the roots or leaves, mixed with honey or sugar, will relieve bronchial and asthmatic troubles and the dried leaves, burnt and inhaled, will have the same effect. The seeds have also been used in consumption, the infusion of herb or seeds being taken in wineglassful doses. The seeds and flowers used to be given in wine as a remedy for ague. The powdered seeds have been considered a cure for goitre and efficacious in reducing excessive corpulency. In old Herbals the seeds, taken inwardly, were recommended for the stings or bites of venomous creatures and mad dogs, and as an antidote to poisoning by Hemlock, Henbane and Nightshade…” (See complete entry)
One of the main health benefits of nettles may be their richness in minerals. The plant is a nutritional powerhouse… which ties in quite nicely with the next point.
Nettles Are Great for the Garden
We’ve heard about the soil-repairing benefits of comfrey, and I’ve shared some details on the amazing Mexican sunflower, but did you know nettles are also an excellent addition to your gardening and permaculture needs? Its excellent root system mines the ground for hard-to-get nutrients including sodium, calcium, iron, sulphur, potassium and copper.(1)
There are multiple ways to take advantage of the nettle’s acquisitive nature. For starters, you can simply let patches of them grow, then chop them down and spread the cut nettles around needier edibles, such as apples or Japanese persimmons. As they rot, they’ll feed the soil. You can also take nettles and layer them into your compost piles where their rich leaves act as a natural activator. Finally, for vegetable gardeners, a simple way to use nettles is to make them into a “tea” by dumping fresh nettles into a bucket, covering them with water, then letting that mix rot down for a while. Strain out the resulting liquid, thin it out a bit, and water your beds. Easy as pie.
Beyond their use as a fertilizer, I’m also convinced that nettles work well as a hiding place for predatory species, as well as being a good companion plant.
Next time you see a patch of stinging nettles, don’t rush to eliminate them. Make some tea! Eat some for dinner! Fertilize your beds!
And go ahead… touch them. Just once.