Gardening – Versatile nettle

The common nettle (Urtica dioica)

Weeds have been used as food for centuries – wild celery, wild onions, watercress, dandelion, borage, purslane and, of course, nettles. Nettles are perennials and highly nutritious, being high in vitamins A, C, D and potassium, zinc, magnesium, calcium and protein. Plus, they have more iron than spinach. When dried, cooked or processed, the trichomes (the stinging hairs) are destroyed making nettles great to use in pesto, soups, teas, breads and to add to smoothies. When steamed, the tender young tops can be eaten like spinach.

Nettle’s history is diverse. As far back as the Bronze Age, people used the plant to make clothing and it is still commonly used as a textile like hemp. The ancient Greeks used it as a laxative and diuretic, and its roots are still used for prostate conditions and as a liver and kidney tonic. The leaves can be applied as a poultice for muscle aches or used as a conditioner to control dandruff.

The mineral content makes it a great compost activator or when used as a liquid fertiliser for seedlings. It can simply be dug in as green manure or used to reduce the heavy metal content in toxic soils. An infusion of nettle leaves is good for combating aphids and the plant can be used to make good dyes, with yellow coming from the roots and a yellowish green from the leaves.

Like most weeds, nettles are rampant growers and will quickly colonise any fertile area. They form large clumps and have spreading roots; containment is the answer if you want to grow them. Use old bathtubs, boxes or raised beds, and make sure you cut off the seed heads, as the seeds germinate readily and are spread by the wind. 

It is a special day when I see the native yellow Admiral butterfly flitting around in the garden. I know there will be butterflies this season as my nettles are ragged skeletons eaten down by the Admiral’s caterpillars. Within the safety of the nettles’ stinging hairs, the larvae find the prefect home, giving the caterpillars protection from predators, not that the wasps are active in such cold weather. The red and yellow Admirals depend on nettles as the primary food for their caterpillars, but as nettle plants are rare in most backyard gardens, these beautiful butterflies, with their striking colours, are unfortunately not widely seen.