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Nettles - friend or foe?

Nettles, (Urtica dioica), are one of the pernicious weeds that have sneaked into my garden when I wasn't looking. Fortunately for me there are just a few patches, as getting rid of them without herbicides is a long-haul war of attrition. The yellow roots form an impenetrable tangled network which irritatingly snap when pulled, and even the tiniest piece left will spawn new nettle shoots. They will smother less vigorous plants (ie almost every other plant in my garden) pretty quickly. There is no option but to dig the whole area up and try and remove all the roots. Inevitably you won't get them all, and so it's a matter of removal on sight of a new shoot. You have to be vigilant and relentless in this fight.

I find all this weed aggression very exhausting. Do we have to fight all the time? Surely nettles have a good side? Well, yes they do, as they are infact pretty useful in several ways, and it completely suits my ethos of sustainability to use these unwelcome thugs rather than just soul-destroyingly trying to annihilate them.

If you can't beat them, eat them......

At this time of year , when the nettle shoots are young and tender, we eat them (well, to be honest I sometimes omit to mention we're eating weeds for supper, I get that raised eyebrow look meaning "can't we just have frozen peas like normal people?). Nettles are incredibly nutritious, packed with minerals and vitamins. They have quite a strong taste, earthy and somewhere between rocket and spinach in my book. You may be wondering the obvious - how can you eat something that you can't even pick without heavy duty armour on? Heat is the simple answer - a gentle simmering or steaming gets rid of the nastiness. Nettles have indeed been eaten since ancient times, and I have to wonder, whose bright idea was it to eat them in the first place? I remember cooking them with the children at my daughter's primary school garden club, and the look of horror/thrill on their little faces. They loved the idea, as there's something Harry Potter-esque about it, and they enthusiastically gloved up and got stuck in. But when it came to actually eating them, they were somewhat reluctant.

It has to be said that I'm not a massive fan of the first and ubiquitous nettle recipe you will come across - nettle soup. It's just a bit too green even for me as a vegetarian, and a little too close to baby food. And it reminds me of the soup dragon in the Clangers for some reason. Much as I love the soup dragon I just don't fancy that green sludge. But included in other recipes alongside spinach and other greens, it's definitely a tasty addition. I prefer to steam it or saute it first, just to be sure I've neutralised the stings, before adding to favourite dishes. Try this - leeks, portebello or wild mushroom, spinach, quinoa, and purple sprouting broccoli, topped with a little diced feta or cheddar cheese.

We're not the only ones eating the nettles - they are an important food source for many caterpillars, such as the peacock, red admiral and tortoiseshells. This well-camouflaged little chap nearly ended up in my frying pan this evening! Promoting a balance of wildlife when gardening is really important to me, as it's all linked to trying to live a sustainable existence. And so I let the nettles grow at the back of the grassy verge on my boundary. The soil there is very poor, and this helps to keep the nettles at bay.

Nettles have some other practical uses, that once would have made them less frowned upon. They can be used to make string or rope - also known as "cordage". Fibres from the outside of those super-strong stems are used, by stripping off the leaves, flattening the stems and pulling the fibres away from the green pithy stem inners. The fibres are then dried and can be twisted into a strong cordage. There's a great YouTube video by Ray Mears on this. You would need an awful lot of nettles to be able to make enough for your garden needs, so it's not quite time to ditch your jute, but it is a really interesting old skill, and I am planning on having a go at this, as I would love to use it for floral crowns and buttonholes, and for bouquet tying.

Yet another use of the versatile but vicious nettle is as a fabric dye. The leaves can be used to give a camouflage green and the roots give a yellow colour. I'm planning on giving this a go at some point, and so hopefully will one day blog about getting messy with nettle dyes, but that's for another day. Nettle name-sakes, the white and purple dead nettles (not the same species at all, Lamium album and L. purpureum respectively, no stings, and easy to get rid of relative to the stinging nettle) give me colour inspiration - purple-tinged foliage and stand-out white and purple flowers put a picture in my brain to use in a bouquet when the chance comes up.

Stinging nettles have long been used in medicine, and if you look them up you will find great long lists of their attributes. One of the things I love about old herbals and the ancient uses of plants, is wondering how they came up with these things in the first place. In one herbal I read how the leaves of the fresh nettle plant are stimulating (I think they meant painful) and that it can be used as a powerful rubefacient to treat arthritis, bursitis, rheumatism, gout, and tendonitis successfully. It mentioned that of a group of eighteen patients with joint pain treated topically with nettle sting (urtification), all but one were sure that the therapy had been very helpful, and several considered themselves cured. I wonder how much of their reaction was to ensure no one ever again flogged their already painful bodies with stinging nettles!? Despite these off-putting tales, stinging nettles do have a role in herbal medicine and I for one will be looking at their ability to treat arthritis (preferably without flogging my joints with them).

I have one final use for Urtica dioica - as a name . . . here's our little Nettle, gloves not necessary but she does need a lot of feeding!

What is your experience with nettles? Friend or foe? Love or hate? Do you have any recipes to share or alternative uses? Or tips on how to keep them at bay without resorting to chemicals? Do you use them as herbal remedies? I'd also love to know what the green caterpillar is going to turn into!

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