Most people think of nettles as an irritating fact of spring and summer life. Certainly they are a significant barrier to wearing shorts on walks along overgrown footpaths, but they can also be a valuable resource . . .
Their most obvious use is as a food. While many green shoots and leaves are described as a ‘spinach substitute’, nettles are one of the few wild plants which can compete with the cultivated vegetable. In particular I would cite nettle soup – or better still, nettle and ink cap soup – as a delicious addition to any menu. (Just for the record, the acid in the stings is quickly broken down by heat, so there is no danger of a sore mouth.)
Cooking harnesses just the leaves, of course, and the rest of the plant has its uses. Most obviously the fibrous stalks can be turned into thread. This can then be twisted together to make rope or woven to produce a cloth. During the Second World War, for example, when the submarine blockade made imports of cotton difficult, thousands of tones of nettles were harvested to make camouflage netting.
But nettles also have important medicinal uses. The Romans used to beat themselves with the plants after saunas, for example. This was supposedly good for the circulation and for pain relief. And in contemporary herbal medicine the raw dried seeds, rubbed through a sieve to remove the irritating hairs, are used to treat patients who are burnt-out or with low libido.
Here I am indebted to Monica Wilde (www.monicawilde.com) for an excellent article on the medicinal uses and underlying science. She says most of the benefits stem from the neurotransmitters acetylcholine and serotonin which are present in the stings, along with choline and histamine.
Acetylcholine is one of the most important neurotransmitter in our brains. It stimulates the nervous system and improves mood, heightens sensory perception and improves attention spans. Low levels can cause depression and could be linked to Alzheimer’s and muscle degeneration.
Serotonin is mainly found in the gut and it regulates mood, appetite, and sleep. It is the serotonin in the nettle spines which causes the pain, but it is also abundant in the seeds – although too much can lead to diarrhea.
Monica recommends chewing 5-20 grams of fresh green nettle seed as a tonic, or boiling them to make a tea (she suggests 50g in 600ml of water). She warns this should be drunk in small quantities because it can out-do the strongest espresso when it comes to keeping one awake. Alternatively, she suggests toasting the seed and using it instead of poppy seeds in bread or sprinkled into salads.