Nettles appear in early spring and continue through into summer. We are often wary of this plant due to it being able to sting us. There are tiny hairs on the entire plant that when touched give us a irritable somewhat painful sting leaving us with a sensitive area of skin afterwards. These hairs contain acetylcholine, histamine, formic acid and serotonin. Acetylcholine opens up the cell wall, histamine gives us the reaction and formic acid the irritation, ants also contain formic acid. It’s interesting that the hairs contain serotonin which we receive when affected. Is it such a negative to be stung by nettles? The stinging hairs are neutralised but hot water and by cooking. You can eat nettles raw without getting stung by folding and rolling a leaf into a very tight bundle and squeezing firmly on the bundle, this breaks the hairs and then they cannot sting anymore.
Nettles make great food and medicine. They contain so many vitamins and minerals that nettles could be considered a plant equivalent to a multi vitamin pill. They contain vitamin A, B, C, D and K. Significant amounts of iron, magnesium, calcium, potassium and zinc. If that wasn’t enough they also contain up to 42% protein. This does depend on where the nettles grow, they are a pioneer species and will be one of the first plants to grow on newly turned soil and depending on the composition of the soil will utilise the newly released nutrients within the area. One advantage nettles have over a multi vitamin pill is the bioavailability of the nutrients for the body. A plant is more easily broken down into the available nutrients and the body has to work slightly less for these nutrients.
The high levels of protein can be precipitated out and made into ‘leafu’ using the same methods employed in making tofu. This can then be dehydrated and stored for future use but then so can the leaves as they are.
They make an excellent spring vegetable for their nutritional content and taste. Traditional and culturally we were much more sedentary in the winter. Winter foods, which were usually stored from earlier harvests in the year, are often lower in nutritional content. Spring plants are important. In fact a few plants that appear in the spring are useful for after Winter along with the nutritional benefits of nettles, cleavers are a gentle lymphatic and ground elder is high in vitamin C and helps remove uric acid build up in the joints.
When harvesting nettles it is important to be aware that the plant should not be harvested after it has gone to flower and it is only the top two to eight leaves are generally considered the best for harvesting. The reason nettles are not used after they flower is the plant starts to produce microscopic calcium carbonate and these can damage the kidneys. Interestingly though the seeds are used to help with kidney function and there are not many plants or orthodox drugs that can help improve kidney function. The seeds as you might expect also contain high levels of nutrients to the point some people feel energised after eating them.
Although the hairs contain histamine the plant exhibits anti histamine effects on the body and is one of the plants used to treat hayfever and other allergic conditions.
Nettle tea is a great way to enjoy nettles but there are many other ways to include them in your diet. Treat them like spinach. They can be made into a delicious soup, added to lasagne, they give a great green colour to gnocchi, can be made into savoury oatcakes and even a delicious and vibrant green cake. I like making a simple nettle syrup and then adding it to cocktails, it gives a depth of flavour and the level of minerals comes through with a hint of green apple.