A surprising feature of herbal research is that it is seldom the rare, exotic, and beautiful plant that proves the most interesting; more often it is some common, familiar, and despised weed that it discovered to have undreamed of virtues. The common nettle is a good illustration.
Nearly everyone who has ever run barefoot as a child knows and hates this plant, but it is only a stinging acquaintance.
Nettles are common along roadsides, in waste places, and on vacant lots where barefoot children like to play, and when contacted by a bare ankle it causes a painful smarting followed by a red rash.
I was recently picking nettles on a nearby farm, and the puzzled farmer wondered aloud why anyone would want to gather "them damn weeds." I started to explain some of the uses of this wonder plant, but he interrupted and said, "All I want to know about nettles is how to get rid of them." This is the attitude that most people have toward this herb.
And yet, this detested weed is one of the finest and most nutritious foods in the whole plant kingdom. Unlike many health foods, nettle greens are really good, as well as being good for you.
In addition to their good taste, nettles are rich in vitamins A and C, amazingly high in protein, filled with chlorophyll, and probably exceedingly rich in many of the essential trace minerals.
No grazing animal will eat a live nettle, but when nettles are mowed and dried, all kinds of livestock eat them avidly and thrive on them. Horses get shinier coats and improve in health when fed dried nettles. Cows give more and richer milk when fed on nettle hay. Hens lay more eggs when powdered nettle leaves are added to their mash, and these eggs actually have a higher food value. Even the manure from nettle-fed animals is improved, and makes better fertilizer.
Nettles furnish one of the most valuable of all plant substances to use as a mulch in your garden, or to add to your compost pile. Having approximately seven percent nitrogen, figured on a dry-weight basis, this plant is richer in this essential nutrient than many commercial fertilizers.
Old-Time Herbal Remedy
All this would seem enough to ask of one common weed, but in addition to these virtues, nettles have also long been used in home remedies and herbal medicines to treat mankind's ills. Any efficacy the nettle may have in this area is probably due to its high content of vitamins and minerals.
A lively soft drink can be made of nettles that is reputed to cure the aches and pains of the aged, but it also makes a pleasant beverage for people of all ages.
Eating nettles is not at all the unpleasant experience you might expect it to be, for this plant, when gathered at the right stage and properly prepared, is a very palatable vegetable. It is said that a good French cook can make seven delicious dishes of nettle tops. You can do as well, once the general principles of nettle-cookery are known.
Nettle Greens: Gather Only Early in Season
Like asparagus, peas, and many other vegetables, nettles must be gathered at just the right stage to be good. The common nettle has perennial underground rhizomes, and from these the tender shoots spring up as soon as the weather is warm. It is only these first nettles, gathered when less than a foot high, that are good to eat.
Take only the tender tops of young, first-growth nettles, before they begin to bloom. Wear leather or plastic-coated work gloves while gathering nettles. Wash the greens by stirring them in water with a long-handled spoon, then use a pair of kitchen-tongs to put them directly into a large saucepan with a tight cover. The moisture that clings to the leaves will furnish ample cooking water. Cover and cook gently for twenty minutes; drain, but save that juice.
You can chop the greens right in the cooking pot by using a pair of kitchen shears. Season the vegetable with butter and salt to taste, and it is ready to serve. A more wholesome vegetable never came to the table. Cooking completely destroys the nettles' stinging properties, and actually converts the venom into wholesome food.
Creamed or Pureed Nettles
Mix the cooked and chopped greens, 2 cupfuls, with a small can of cream of mushroom soup (or cream of celery, or cheese soup) and 1/2 cup of light cream for a superior creamed vegetable, wonderful over toast.
For pureed nettles, rub the cooked nettles, juice and all, through a sieve; return this puree to the heat, add 2 tablespoons of butter, salt to taste, and simmer for about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat, stir in a few tablespoons of light cream, sprinkle with freshly ground black pepper, and serve immediately.
An old English recipe is nettle pudding, which is not a dessert but a hearty main dish. To 2 cups of cooked and chopped nettle greens add 1 cup chopped leek or onion, 1 cup chopped broccoli, 1 cup raw rice, 1 cup ground beef, and 1/2 cup fine-chopped beef suet. Season with 1 teaspoon salt and a little freshly ground black pepper, mix well, then tie the mixture up in a muslin cloth that has been wrung out in cold water. Drop into boiling water and boil for 1 hour, or hang over boiling water and steam for 3 hours. When you remove the pudding cloth, you will have a round cannonball of a pudding that is delicious when served with a good gravy or melted butter.
Nettle Soup, Juice & Beer
Let's return to that juice we drained from the cooked nettles. Just seasoned with a little salt and pepper and a little vinegar, it makes a tasty soup that is supposed to be very efficacious in removing unwanted pounds. Mixed with a little honey it is said to relieve asthma, allay a cough, and help cure bronchitis. Taken as hot as you can take it, after exposure, this juice has a reputation of helping to prevent colds.
This same juice, cooled, is said to be a fine hair tonic. Applied twice a day it is reputed to prevent falling hair, eliminate dandruff, promote a healthy scalp, and help keep the hair neatly combed.
In some parts of England the country people still make a pleasant summer drink called nettle beer. To 4 quarts of freshly picked nettle tops add 2 gallons of water, 2 lemons cut in thin slices, rind and all, and 2 ounces of crushed, dried gingerroot. Boil gently for forty minutes, then strain and stir in 2 cups of brown sugar. When cooled to barely lukewarm, dissolve a cake of yeast in a cup of the liquid and then stir it into the brew. Bottle immediately and cap tightly, and in a few days it is ready to drink. It should be refrigerated until ice-cold before opening, for this is a lively drink and will foam wildly if opened while warm. Since it has no detectable alcoholic content it can be given to the whole family.
Probably no other wild plant so perfectly demonstrates the change of attitude one experiences toward weeds when their virtues become known.
PUBLISHER'S NOTE: This article is intended for informational purposes only. No claims are made regarding the accuracy of any of the nutritional or medicinal advice given by the author. Consult your personal health care provider before using any plant or plant by-product for medicinal purposes.
Excerpted from Stalking the Healthful Herbs by Euell Gibbons, with permission of the publisher.