Taking the sting out of nettles

The stinging nettle is, thanks to its sting and vigorous growth, a much-maligned weed by both gardeners and visitors to the countryside, but it has not always been that way.

Stinging nettles are great for wildlife

Stinging nettles are known to support at least 40 different insect species, including some of our more familiar and colourful butterflies and less familiar, but equally beautiful, moths. Peacock, red admiral, small tortoiseshell, comma and painted lady butterflies all have caterpillars whose only, or main, source of food is the nettle. These caterpillars, along with the aphids and other insects that feed upon them, in turn feed our woodland and garden birds throughout the spring and early summer. Later in the year small seed-eating birds, including chaffinch, bullfinch and house sparrow all benefit from the thousands of small seeds which each nettle plant produces.

Apart from these direct benefits to wildlife, gardeners in the know can also help wildlife and save themselves some money by growing and making their own nitrogen rich nettle fertiliser. Simply half fill any water tight container with nettles, make it up with water, give it an occasional stir … and wait! After a few days it will have started “brewing” – try adding some rosemary to offset the offensive smell! After 3-4 weeks of bubbling, strain off the solids to the compost heap and “serve” the remaining liquor. Diluted at 1 part nettle fertiliser to ten parts water, your garden plants will love it!

Nettle eating at Blashford

Nettle eating at Blashford


Young nettle tops (picked anytime from early spring to early summer) really are delicious. Steamed or simmered, like any green vegetable, the taste and texture of cooked nettles is similar to spinach and can be substituted for that in any recipe. Full of vitamins and minerals, but particularly iron, they are a cheap and readily available “super-food”. True to the old adage you just need a firm grip (or gloves!) to avoid the stinging hairs when you pick them, and the cooking process will do the rest so you can enjoy their taste and goodness without worrying. You will need to pick a lot of leaves as just like spinach, they are reduced in volume when cooked, and only pick the young leaves at the top of the plant before it has gone to seed.

As well as being an important food, historically nettles have also been used as a food wrap for cheese, fish and meat, an analgesic, animal feed supplement, dye, shampoo and cloth. Even today you can find nettle listed as a key ingredient on the supermarket shelf on everything from shampoo to cheese to beer!