Keep your eyes peeled for the young nettle shoots that are sprouting up along our hedges, behind ditches, in the garden - just about everywhere right about now. Stinging nettles (urtica dioca) are well featured in Irish folk medicine and further afield, for almost as long as they have been around. Apparently, the stinging nettle was first introduced to here by Caesar's soldiers after their march across Britain. Away from the warmer weather of their home in ancient Rome and the long miles walked wreaked havoc on their bare legs. At the end of a tough day conquering, they would gather huge bunches of nettles and beat each other’s legs with them, thereby warming and soothing their weary limbs. In hindsight, it would have been less painful for them to ditch the skirts and wear a pair of trousers! However, we must be thankful to them as they started a trend and soon after, our ancestors were using nettles to treat ailments such as urinary tract disease, kidney dysfunction, arthritis, gout, hypertension, respiratory problems, skin disorders, hair loss, asthma and anemia (to name a few).
Today, science can explain some of the reasoning that nettles became the number one remedy in its day. The young shoots are a rich source of vitamins and minerals - such as vitamins C, E, K, betacarotene and minerals such as iron, magnesium, silica and calcium. They have a stimulating action on the kidney, bladder and urinary system. When eaten in Spring, they help to clean the body of toxins, built up over the winter. They improve the excretion of uric acid thereby reducing the symptoms of gout and arthritis. Their anti-inflammatory compounds joined with minerals such as silicon and boron help ease the pain of rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, bursitis, tendonitis while reducing inflammation in the joints and tendons
Stinging nettle contains natural antihistamines and anti-inflammatories (including quercetin), that can dilate constricted bronchial and nasal passages. There is good evidence to support the use of nettles for hay fever symptoms and allergies affecting the nose and sinuses, once you are not allergic to nettles, of course! The nettles have also been used to treat hypertension by regulating arterial pressure and strengthening blood vessels. They are used to treat anaemia due to their iron content and rich in vitamin K to help regulate blood coagulation. Not a bad list of health benefits from a plant that is often despised and considered a nuisance in the garden!
The nettle provides an excellent source of silicon which is used in the body as silica – an important mineral to strengthen the matrix in which bone is laid down. Working closely with collagen, silica provides strength to bones, skin, hair and nails.
How to Use Nettles in your Kitchen
The best time to harvest young nettle shoots and to reap their benefits is anytime from when they first appear until they go to seed. The young nettle tops are ripe for picking right now. However, the root is also used later in the year and can be dried and ground to a fine powder. Young nettle leaves and stems are used to make tea, infusions, juices and soups. Nettle tea is the best way to benefit from the diuretic and detoxifying properties of the plant. The tea is prepared through soaking the fresh or dried leaves in boiled water. This method allows the retention of active substances. The steam of tea is good for the respiratory system and skin so before drinking the tea, you can have a mini-facial by covering your head with a towel and placing your face over the pot or bowl of steaming nettles. Once cooled a little, drink the tea. The soaked leaves can be used as a compress for inflamed and painful joints. Nothing is wasted!
A nettle infusion is often used to wash the scalp to regenerate, grow and thicken hair. An infusion is made by boiling 60g of crushed nettle leaves in 2½ cups of water. Cover the pot for 10 minutes, strain and use the nettle water when rinsing your hair.
Nettle juice is best for delivering the blood and heart benefits of the plant. Gather both leaves and stems and put into juicer. Strain the paste through a fine sieve or muslin and keep refrigerated in dark bottles until use. For hypertension drink a half glass before meals. For anemia, drink 1-2 glasses daily. For kidney and bladder strength, drink one glass on waking. These are just guidelines so always consult with your healthcare professional if you are taking other meds.
The nettle is robust and versatile and can also be used in cooking by adding it to soups or steamed with spinach for a fortifying side dish. Nettles have an earthy spinach-like flavour with a little tang and work well mashed into the spuds too. Another idea to use nettles is to slightly wilt them (taking the sting out) by pouring boiled water over them. Then squeeze the excess water out of the limp leaves and use like a herb in pesto, soups and dips. With all the worrying about food costs rising, nettles cost nothing, just your time. Take care picking out the young leaves, but if you do get stung, it could be a hint that you need to put this powerful food on your seasonal menu!