In the Kitchen with Mother Linda
I don’t really recommend “grasping” nettles, but the old English phrase “grasping the nettle” means “to boldly take hold of a difficult situation.” In other words, as you take hold of life’s difficulties and they bite you back, hold on until the sting subsides and then claim victory. I think that is excellent advice–but definitely metaphorical. When it comes to nettles, there are practical considerations as well–which include grasping them with gloves.
I will never forget, nor will he, the nettle patch my son fell into along an Irish roadside. Running ahead of us on a narrow road, he turned back to say something and fell in the ditch. His legs and arms stung for hours from an itchy, although benign, rash that was injected into his body by the plants’ tiny, but sharp and toxin-filled hairy spines.
Wild nettles thrive along roadsides and in ditches in temperate and tropical areas around the globe–and the sting of some tropical species can be sickening or deadly. On five continents, nettles are one of the first species to re-colonize disturbed land. In addition to noting (and experiencing) nettles in Ireland and the United States, I have seen them in Bulgaria, where they are appreciated as a spring tonic, and in Switzerland, where they are as under-appreciated as they are in the United States.
More than 100 Urtica species exist throughout the world. Urtica dioica or stinging nettle, the most common nettle species, is fairly easy to recognize, but I always recommend that first timers get professional identification of any plant–especially before ingestion. According to former USDA ethnobotantist James Duke, nettles look like overgrown catnip. “Nettles nip back, so don’t try to sniff it,” say Duke. “And if it stings, you’ve been nipped by the nettle, which injected you with five neurotransmitters.” These chemical poisons, which not only serve as a very effective defense mechanism, include acetylcholine, histamine and 5-hydroxytryptamine. The usual symptom is an itchy rash that dissipates within a few hours. But these same properties have been the source of folk medicine for millennia.
According to Duke, the most widespread and consistent folk use for nettles is the treatment of arthritis or rheumatism. Time-tested therapeutic applications range from flagellating oneself externally with nettle leaves on the skin, causing welts, to taking freeze-dried nettle leaf capsules internally. Nettles in the form of freeze-dried capsules is often recommended for asthma.
Due its relatively high iron content, some cultures use stinging nettles as a remedy for anemia. This is usually in the form of a soup or as a vegetable dish that incorporates the tops of young nettles. For example, in Scotland, young nettle tops are combined with leeks or onions, broccoli or cabbage, and rice, boiled in a muslin bag and served with butter or gravy. In Turkey, they are an ingredient in many spring recipes, such as spinach and nettle pie in which a mixture of spinach and nettles is layered between thin layers of phyllo.
In addition to these long-time traditional uses, nettles are currently in use for the treatment of prostate problems. Germany has approved a mixture of saw palmetto and nettle root for the treatment of benign prostatic hyperplasia, BPH, which can develop into prostate cancer if left unattended. This mixture is also for sale in the United States.
Throughout history, nettles have had some unusual uses. For example, the Roman nettle, probably Urtica pilulifera, was supposedly introduced into the United Kingdom by Caesar’s troops posted to the far reaches of the empire. They subsequently whipped their legs with nettles in order to numb them from the penetrating English cold. Today, the English have healthy admiration for nettles as evidenced by their “Be Nice to Nettles Week” each May.
Nettles also served as a source for a green pigment to dye candy and textiles; it can also serve as a strong fabric. For example, cloth made from nettle fibers was used during World War I as a substitute for cotton to produce German and Austrian army uniforms.
A growing appreciation for the species in some quarters is the reason more nettles are being cultivated today. Fields of nettles are grown in California and carefully picked by thick-gloved workers to meet the growing demand. And avid gardeners and naturalists are adding the species to their gardens, not only for their culinary and medicinal value, but in the hopes of attracting butterflies.
Not leaving Mother Nature to chance, nettles are just one of the many plants given a place in Duke’s Green Farmacy Garden in Fulton, Maryland. In the spring, he serves a soup comprised of a concoction of “weeds” pulled from his garden of volunteers. He starts with a handful of young nettle tops (Urtica dioica), a handful of garlic mustard tops (Alliaria petiolata), and a handful of Mexican bamboo tops (Polygonum cuspidatum), and ends with a little salt, hot sauce and pepper to taste. “I like to add diced raw onions, vinegar and possibly cilantro, when served,” says Duke. If you would like to make Duke’s soup, start with a good chicken broth.
When I was in Quebec’s Charlevoix region two summers ago, a regional chef made a delicious nettle soup for me, which I enjoyed at Le Manoir Richlieu a world-class Fairmont resort and casino overlooking the St. Lawrence Seaway at Malbaie. Although it was in early August, the northerly clime offered nettles still young enough to make a most delicious and nutritious potage. I’m always on the look out for good recipes to add to my collection–this one made the grade.
(Cream of Nettles Soup)
- 3 tablespoons butter
- 1 cup diced onions
- 3 cups heavy cream
- 4 cups homemade chicken stock
- 1 pound young nettle tops
- sea salt and pepper
In a medium sauce pan, melt butter, add finely chopped onions and sauté until golden. Add the cream and stock and bring to a boil. Add the nettles and bring to a boil; immediately blend in mixer on high, then strain or run through a food mill. Season to taste with sea salt and pepper.
- For official United States distribution information, see http://plants.usda.gov/cgi_bin/plant_profile.cgi?symbol=URDI
- For more information on “Be Nice to Nettles Week,” see– http://www.nettles.org.uk
- Duke, James A., Medicinal Plants of the Bible, Conch Publications, 1983.
- Kavalali, Gulsel, Urtica: therapeutic and nutritional aspects of stinging nettles, Taylor and Francis, London, 2003.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Spring 2004.