Nettles belong to the family Urticaceae which, world wide, comprises of approximately 500 species. Its genus name Urtica loosely translates as " I sting", from the Latin uro meaning to burn. The species name dioica {pronounced dee-o-ee-ka} derives from Greek words that mean of two houses or two abodes. This because nettles' in the main, have only one type of flower on each plant ie, all male or all female. {only rarely do you  encounter both types of flowers on one plant}. Hence two plants are needed one of each type for pollination to occur.  Flowers so formed to be adapted for wind pollination.

Female flowers are arranged in tight clusters and tend to droop while male flowers may be recognized because they stand out horizontally. They flower from May right through until early winter. Studies have revealed that at least 16 hours of daylight is required in order for the flower production to begin.

Each plant produces many seeds the majority of which germinate  in the springtime. Young nettle plants do not flower until their second year, this helps the plant to form a good root system and to get established. The seeds are eaten by earth worms a fact revealed during a study of worm casts when excreted seeds were discovered. They are also distributed in the droppings of birds and mammals.

The root system is perennial, creeping and light in colour.Along the creeping rhizome nodes are produced which in turn produce shoots that will emerge in the spring. The rhizome is durable and persistent and should any part of it remain in the soil after weeding it will root and form new plants.    photograph by Dal showing female flowers. 

Stems and leaves and associated creatures.

The stems are erect in habit attaining the height of 50-150cm and like the foliage are clad in white stinging hairs. {the plants way of protecting themselves from being grazed or uprooted}.

The individual leaves are triangular in form and coarsely toothed, the lower leaves are long stalked , the upper leaves are borne on short stalks. The leaves are strongly veined. The leaves are used in culinary and medicinal preparations. {see below}

The foliage is beneficial to species of butterfly such as the small tortoise shell, comma, red admiral and the peacock . The caterpillars of the peacock butterfly are probably the easiest to identify. They are shiny black with barbed prominent spikes. White spots are a salient feature along each of the segments. They may be encountered in large numbers.

Photographs by  Dal 

Photographs above top. comma butterfly. Bottom lily beetle on nettle.

Aphids also frequent nettles where they accumulate in large gatherings. Another creature which may be encountered often on nettle leaves during the summer is the small, metallic bronze coloured, weevil. Many species of fly may also be observed resting on the foliage.

Young fawn hiding in nettles

Courtesy of Ynskjen Flickr.com CC BY-SA 2.0 Generic License.

Culinary uses..

I have employed nettle leaves in soups,teas,and as a vegetable for many years. My first encounter with the species of our native flora { for there is evidence that nettles grew in England long before the Romans arrived, who were purported to have introduced the nettle } in  common with many other children was not a good one, their stings causing a pain that one does not forget. It was down to my grandfather who was wise in the ways of the countryside to educate me about this most useful of plants. This education was not lost on me as a teenager as I began my experiments utilising its foliage.

My first experiment  was simply an infusion of the leaves " nettle tea". I washed half a dozen leaves, then cut them into smaller pieces with scissors . These fresh young leaves where then placed into a mug and soaked in boiling water for five minutes or so. The water was then drained off and the leaves discarded. The tea was then sipped. I know friends that add honey to the liquid while the water is still hot, but this is down to personal taste.

To use the foliage as a vegetable the same method is used. However, instead of discarding the leaves they are placed in a small bowl. A knob of butter is added and then they are beaten with a fork. They may then be eaten as vegetable. The warmth lingers well after they have been consumed. Boiling water kills the sting so there is no danger posed by eating nettles prepared in this way.

My next experiment was a soup the ingredients were as follows---

NETTLE LEAVES------a handful

CLEAVERS--------------a handful {cleavers is also known as goosegrass}





METHOD------The stock is brought to the boil and the pearl barley added.{ it takes longer to cook than the other ingredients.} When the barley is softened  add the chopped onion. At this stage you can also add the nettle /goose grass.  Cook simmering until the soup is ready to serve. The pouring cream {optional} can then be added. Again this down to personal taste. Do not add cream when the water is boiling for it has a tendency to curdle. add and stir as the soup is simmering.

All of the above uses are naturally good for you. Nettles and cleavers are excellent blood purifiers and contain vitamins and traces of iron. Other ways nettles have been used in the kitchen are diverse and range from nettle puddings through to nettle beer.


Other uses of the stinging nettle..

Nettles have been employed by man  in many other ways. The stalks have been used to make a linen that was said to be very durable and of a good quality. A dye has been extracted from the plants that was used during the second world war to dye camouflage nets.

Extracts were also used to produce pain killers during the first world war.

Nettle leaves soaked in a bucket of water also make an excellent plant food. I have used gallons of the liquid on my garden with excellent results. It must be said that the resulting liquid is of a murky green colour which has an odour not worthy of praise. Yet does not manure? Wherever nettles have grown for a number of years  then removed {not leaving any rhizome fragments in the ground} the soil is of a good quality and fertile.

If you have the mindset that the nettle is just another annoying weed, you will miss out on its many virtues.

Any one inclined to use the nettle for medicinal or culinary purposes is advised to see WILD HERB ADVISE. 

Young growth ideal for medicinal and culinary purposes

Courtesy of Frank Vincetz. CC BY-SA 3.0 License.

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