The stinging nettle Urtica dioica is one of the easiest plants to identify – a quick brush past it and you’ll certainly know that you’ve found one! This tough perennial that can reproduce by seeds and by spreading roots is hard to eradicate from the garden, but in times past its virtues were far more valued than they are today.
With the resurgence in interest in wild foods (cheap, nutritious and easy to come by), the nettle is once again on the menu. Harvest the fresh growth at the tips of the stems (whilst wearing gloves!) and you’ve got an ingredient for a delicious and healthy soup, tea or cordial. Cooking and drying both cause nettles to lose their sting – and dried nettles make an excellent addition to animal fodder.
Nettles are used by herbalists, too, generally to treat aches and pains and arthritis. Their fibres can be used to make clothes (sting free!) and could become more popular as interest in environmentally-friendly fabrics grows. If you’re interested in dyeing then nettle leaves and stems make a wonderful and permanent green dye, whilst the roots produce a yellow dye.
If you don’t fancy eating or wearing your nettles then you can at least make good use of them in the garden. Nettles can be rotted down in a bucket of water for a few weeks to make a very nutritious (not to mention smelly) liquid plant feed. Your neighbours might not thank you, but your plants certainly will! You can harness those same nutrients in another way, too, by adding nettle leaves and stalks (not roots) to your compost. The nitrogen they contain speeds up the composting process, and is then locked up in the compost and returned to the soil. You can even use nettles to preserve your harvest – packing fruit with nettle leaves helps to keep mould at bay.
And if you’re still not convinced that nettles are an asset to your garden, consider the many species of insect that call them home – including over-wintering aphids that provide food for ladybirds emerging from hibernation and persuade them to stay in your garden, where they and their larvae will help to keep your garden pest-free all season.