Nettle (Urtica dioica) is the Jeckyll and Hyde of the home garden. It has no neutral qualities, only excellent and abominable ones. On the negative side, they spread aggressively by seed and underground runners, and attack anyone who dares try to weed them out with hypodermic syringes full of irritants. And as the leaves mature, they form microscopic stones called cystoliths that lodge in the kidney to form kidney stones. On the positive side, it is nutritious and tasty, yields fibre and medicine, dries and stores easily, is an important plant for wildlife and accumulates a suite of minerals that makes it one of the best plants around to go in your compost heap.
Fortunately, there is a way to get all of the good qualities of nettle with far fewer of the negative ones. It’s called fen nettle, a subspecies of regular nettle called Urtica dioica galeopsifolia. More on this later…
There is a long tradition of using nettles in Scotland. Bronze Age bog bodies have been recovered wearing clothes made from nettle fibre. St Colmcille, who spread Irish Christianity to Scotland in the sixth century, is reputed to have lived on nettle pottage after learning the recipe from an old woman he encountered cutting the plants. Legend tells that a servant, perhaps with less faith in the wisdom of old women, mixed meat juice into the broth from a hollow spoon that he used to stir it. Samuel Pepys was served nettle porridge on his travels through the Highlands and Sir Walter Scott mentions the practice of forcing nettles under glass in Rob Roy. Anywhere in the world where nettles grow (and that is to say, almost everywhere), there is a tradition of using them. St Colmcille might be given a run for his money as the patron saint of nettle-eating by the Tibetan poet-sage Milarepa, who subsisted on them so much that his skin is said to have turned green!
Nettles have a distinctive, earthy taste that I didn’t like when I first tried them but have grown to love. The part to pick is the tips: roughly 10 cm of growth where they are still soft and break off easily. Wearing gloves helps if you don’t want to be stung. You’ll be glad to hear that even very brief cooking melts the stinging hairs and renders them powerless.
My main use for nettle tops is as a pot herb: they add a depth of flavour to leaf sauce that I look forward to every year. Whole, they are good fried or steamed, either on their own or mixed with other spring shoots, or on top of a pizza. They make a great filling for ravioli or maki. The traditional nettle soup is always worth making, although I tend to round it out with other leaves. Make a potato soup, throw in nettle tops and cook for just a couple of minutes before blending. Miles Irving, the author of Forager recommends instantly chilling the soup in a metal container plunged into cold water to preserve the colour and flavour. Dave Hamilton gives a recipe for nettle haggis on Self Sufficient-ish, while forager and herbalist Monica Wilde uses the seeds.
If you have more nettles than you can use they are easy to dry by spreading them out in a well-ventilated space. The dried tops can be crumbled and stored, to add nettly goodness to soups and stews throughout the year. Dried nettles also make a great tea, and blends well with mint. Fresh ones can be fermented into a refreshing ‘beer’, with no more added ingredients needed than sugar, yeast and a bit of lemon juice.
Nettles are so common that it may be better to forage them than give up space in your garden for them, but there is one big advantage to having your own patch. As shoots grow older they develop harmful cystoliths (hard deposits in the cell walls) and they should not be picked after they begin flowering. You can extend the season by cutting the patch down. It won’t be long before it is producing tender regrowth. This makes nettle one of the best ‘dual use’ food/green-manure crops.
This is where the fen nettle comes in. If you are going to deliberately grow nettles in your garden, wouldn’t it be great to have one that had all the taste, nutritional and wildlife qualities of nettle, without those pesky stings? Well, you can! Fen nettle is a subspecies of stinging nettle that grows in wet places across Europe. Besides having far fewer stinging hairs, it even has, in my experience, a better growth habit for the garden – more upright and less aggressively spreading.
There are two ways to propagate fen nettle, both of which I offer in my seed list. The first is by seed, but here there is a risk that the results will be a cross between fen nettle and wild stinging nettle. All nettle plants that spring up near my fen nettle patch get scrutinised with great suspicion, then either disposed of or transfered to a pot to grow on for further examination! The other method avoids this risk. Those spreading rhizomes which can make nettle such a pest make it incredibly easy to propagate: just dig up a piece and transfer it to a new home.