The oft maligned stinging nettle is considered by many to be a weed at best. Something to be relegated to those wild parts of the homestead where it can’t cause any trouble, where you won’t have to see it or think about it. Not so in my garden! Here at the Traditional Catholic Homestead we embrace this dreaded weed as an ally in nutrition and fertility.
I won’t go so far as to claim that I intentionally planted nettle in my garden, but when I brought in soil for my hugelkulture mounds there just so happened to be some in there. When I saw them start to come up I was quite excited, I knew what these little beauties could contribute to both my garden and my plate!
Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica) is a herbaceous perennial native to North America (and most of the world). To say that it is prolific would be an understatement, and as a “weed” they require little to no care. Nettles do get their “sting” from small hair like fibers on the leaf surface that have a reservoir of an irritating chemical attached. Caution should be taken not to contact these fibers to avoid the sting. The major use of nettles in my garden area is as a cut and come again, chop and drop mulch plant, or as an additive to the compost heap. The nettle provides a high nitrogen, nutrient dense boost to the soil or compost pile, and it keeps coming back for more (so long as you don’t over harvest). I prefer to grow my fertility where I need it, not importing it from off farm, or even twenty yards away… I guess I’m just lazy that way!
Nettles provide more than just food for the soil though, they provide sustenance for the farmer as well. The nutrient profile of this Homestead Hero quite literally blows nearly every other garden green out of the water. Nettles are high in protein and fiber, and low in calories. They are also an excellent source of both vitamin A and Calcium. Some sources list 42% of your daily calcium requirement from one cup of nettles. Try to get that from your spinach patch! Speaking of spinach, our nettles have been up and growing for three weeks while the earliest spinach in the garden is just barely getting its first set of true leaves. Now that is what I call early production.
The stinging nettle is considered by many to be the first green of spring. Around here they start coming on before even the daffodils make an appearance. With such early growth it seems like a shame to neglect this spring tonic for fear of the “sting”. Once cooked or dried the chemicals that make the stinging nettle sting are neutralized. Nettles can be used like cooked spinach or chard in the kitchen. You can steam or saute them, cook them with eggs, or use them in soups or stews. The taste is mild and the nutritional boost is significant. Either fresh or dried nettles make a fine tea as well. I use the leaves straight, mixed with green tea, or as an adjunct to my kombucha ferment. Nettle tea is said to help with seasonal allergies. I’ve notice a somewhat drying effect in my sinuses when I drink the tea, so I think this very well may be true.
We wild craft most of the nettles that we use for food around here. They are most commonly found in moist areas with rich soil. It’s fun to go out with a paper bag and some scissors to search for nettles in the wild. You do want to make sure to wear some gloves and a long sleeved shirt… it just makes things go a lot faster when you are harvesting. That being said I usually conduct myself at a much more leisurely pace in the garden so I don’t bother with all of the precautions there. With care you can easily avoid the sting and I’ve even seen video of folks eating raw nettles with their bare hands… it can be done!
To recap: Stinging nettles are a great mulch plant, and compost activator. They are an early arriving nutritional powerhouse with medicinal value. Nettles grow in abundance and are perennial. They have a long harvest season, and… did I mention that dried nettles make a great fodder feed for livestock?!? I need to stop now because I could literally go on for pages about the different uses of the mighty stinging nettle, this weeks Homestead Hero, Plant of Promise!
In the next installment of Homestead Heros, Plants of Promise we will discuss the curious habits of the Egyptian Walking Onion!