Nettles are mostly perceived as a weed but they're in fact a valuable plant. Did you know that eating nettles is good for you?

Of all the wild plants we enjoy in our fields and hedgerows, it’s fair to say that nettles are probably at the bottom of the popularity stakes. Which isn’t surprising given that they can be really very mean. Not only are they despised by anyone wearing shorts, they’re the sworn enemy of farmers and gardeners. Able to survive on just about any soil, nettles will colonise in the blink of an eye, multiplying, mushroom-like, overnight and overwhelming everything in their path.

In the battle against nettles, weed killers containing glyphosate have been widely and liberally used. This systemic herbicide does a killer job: working its way down to the roots of the plant and wiping it out from the bottom up. But there’s a problem: glyphosate isn’t just bad for weeds, it’s bad for everything else it comes into contact with, including us. Residues of the chemical remain in the soil, wash into rivers and are found in many of the foods that we eat. There are compelling arguments to implicate glyphosate in many of the chronic illnesses that plague the developed world. So you can see why, at Pipers Farm, we’d rather tolerate the odd nettle bed than douse our fields with weed killer.

The many uses of the humble nettle

And, anyway, nettles aren’t all bad. Taking a glass-half-full perspective they have lots of beneficial uses – from ecological to culinary. Firstly, without nettles, our wildlife diversity would suffer. Favourite British butterfly species such as the Peacock, Red Admiral and Tortoiseshell lay their eggs on nettles and the resulting caterpillars eat the spiny leaves. Other insects seek refuge amidst nettle stems, hiding from grazing animals, and these insects, in turn, attract toads, frogs and hedgehogs. In late summer, when the plant’s flowers die away, their abundant seed heads provide food for seed-eating wild birds.

Another, maybe more surprising fact about nettles is that once dried and spun they can be woven into a textile, with the juice extracted from the leaves used as a natural dye. German uniforms worn during the First World War were made from nettle fabric when cotton ran short and many ecologically minded fashion designers are turning to nettles as a viable alternative to linen.

Nettles are a superfood

But what about eating nettles? It might sound outlandish, but nettles have been used for centuries in both Eastern and Western cultures as an ingredient in soups, stews and curries as well as in medicinal preparations. This is because nettles are packed with health-giving nutrients, including iron, calcium and vitamins A, B, C and K1. Amongst other things they’re considered ideal for detoxifying the body, boosting red blood cells, improving circulation and acting as an anti-inflammatory. Not bad for a weed.

So rather than poisoning or chopping down that patch of nettles in the garden, why not eat them instead and try your hand at cooking Pasta With Garlicky Nettle Pesto and Smoked Streaky Bacon?

The first thing to note about eating nettles is that once cooked, they entirely lose their sting. But obviously, take care when picking and handling them – a robust pair of rubber gloves will do the trick. If you’re foraging outside of your own garden make sure you have permission to pick and always pick high, away from areas where dogs may have, ahem, visited. Late spring is the best time to pick nettles – choose the fresh growth from the top where the leaves are tender.