When you come across a patch of wild nettles, is your first instinct to keep a wide berth in order to avoid being stung, or is it to marvel at such a practical and plentiful natural wonder? I have to admit, my attitude towards nettles has changed somewhat since I moved to the Outer Hebrides.
I now realise that nettles are simply an amazing plant. Rich in iron, vitamins and minerals, they can be used in any recipe calling for spinach, and can also be drunk as a tea, or even made into beer or wine. Their medicinal qualities can address such issues as anaemia, constipation, eczema, hayfever, arthritis and rheumatism, kidney and urinary infections, and can even improve skin complexion and make hair more shiny.
Nettles are also a source of fabric dyes and food colouring. And from bygone times to the present day, the fibre from nettles has been used to manufacture textiles. Apparently, German soldiers in the First World War were kitted out in nettle uniforms!
If you want to pick nettles, it goes without saying that you need to take precautions. To avoid being stung, cover your arms and legs, and wear rubber gloves. To get the best nettles, pick them while they’re young, and avoid those growing near main roads or other polluted areas. A nettle patch will yield a few harvests each year if you pick them regularly to encourage new shoots.
An example of a delicious dish that can be made with a bunch of nettles is this soup:
Ingredients (serves 4)
- A colander full of nettle leaves
- 1 large potato (diced)
- 1 small onion (diced)
- 2 cloves of garlic
- 1 litre vegetable stock
- Salt and pepper
- ½ tsp cumin
- ¼ tsp cayenne pepper
- Wash the nettle leaves (keep your gloves on while washing the nettles, and be sure to remove insects and caterpillars).
- In a large saucepan, fry the onions, garlic and potato in butter.
- Add the nettle leaves and fry for a few minutes.
- Add the stock and seasoning and cook for 20 minutes.
- Liquidise with a hand blender and serve warm.
- Garnish with a sprig of parsley or basil, or finely-chopped fresh chives.
- Serve with fresh, crusty bread.
A Handbook of Scotland’s Wild Harvests, edited by Fi Martynoga (Saraband, 2019)