Urtica Dioica, We've all landed in a patch of these as a child! we would come out crying and covered in patches of raised white bumps. If mum was about we where told to rub a dock leaf onto the affected area. Then after a few days the bumps along with the tears would have vanished. Until the next encounter!
The common stinging nettle is one of the most amazing of our native plants. Of All British plant species, its possibly the only one that can be found blind folded!
Its use by humans goes back through the ages, right back to the Roman era, Some even suggest that it was introduced by the Romans. It was also used during the First world war when cotton was scarce. In Germany thousands of hectares of land was put aside to cultivate nettles to be used as a cotton substitute. Though, nettles used as a fiber for clothing are far softer and more hard wearing than cotton, but a little harder to harvest!
If you failed to identify them from the stinging! then look out for a square stemmed plant with opposite hairy leaves that have little odor when crushed. The mint family also has square stems but all contain aromatic essential oils and have showy flowers, well That's how some describe them, and I suppose in comparison to nettle they are quite showy. Just don't sit them next to an Orchid!
The sting is caused by tiny hairs reinforced by silica that, similar to a hypodermic needle, inject a cocktail of chemicals to cause itching and irritation. It was thought that the main constituent in the sting was formic acid, the same acid present in the 'bite' from a wood ant. Recent studies have found that although formic acid is present, histamine, acetylcholine and 5-hydroxytryptamine are in higher quantities. If those last two sound a bit sciencey, then the former is sometime used in the treatment of cataracts and Alzheimer's and is generally a muscle stimulant and neurotransmitter, the latter (serotonin) is another neurotransmitter. Both are naturally occurring in the body and are muscle stimulants. Serotonin however is also known as the happy drug and is involved with antidepressants. People with naturally low levels of this chemical can be prone to depression. Antidepressants tend to increase serotonin levels in the brain. So could nettles induce happiness? wouldn't that be great!? what if i told you it was true? well, it is! Well at least a walk outdoors, in the fresh air is proven to reduce stress, and happiness will be induced into any that witness you rolling around in a patch of nettles listening to the Prodigy!
Joking aside, Nettles do harbor some clever medicinal properties. In one Scientific study ( I'll leave out any big words this time!) nettles where found to be just as effective in reducing pain and immobility in a test on over 200 Arthritic patients as NSAID's ( see http://www.herballegacy.com/Vance_Medicinal.html for a conprhensive list of medicinal benifits )
So medicinally its pretty good, and as a veg, well - its a super food! The dried leaf can contain 40% protein, they contain vitamins A, C, D, E, F, K, P, B-complexes and Thiamine, riboflavin, Niacin and vitamin B6. Thankfully the sting is lost on cooking so we can relish in all their goodness pain free!
Like the Germans using them for clothing, they are indeed excellent for making cordage. To prepare, strip a nettle of its leaves and side shoots, gently bash the stem to separate the fibers along its length and then separate the outer fibers from the inner pith by pealing the outer fibers back, away from the inner pith. These removed strands are then dried to remove moisture and can then be made into cordage at a later time ( They are dried first otherwise the cordage made from fresh stems would shrink )
My best use for nettles is nettle beer, drinkable within a week but best after two. Earlier consumption has a strong nettle taste ( but still very drinkable ) drinking any longer than four weeks after bottling will induce slurring quite quickly! Longer than that and you will have produced some fancy nettle bombs! gas build up during bottle conditioning can be quite high. You have been warned! Below is my favorite recipe based around Hugh Fearnley Whittingstalls - A cook on the wild side, and his online content.
Bring 5 liters of water to the boil
Pour this over a carrier bags worth of young nettle tops in a bucket and infuse for an hour (mash it up a bit!)
Strain into a large pan and add the juice of a lemon or two
Stir in 450g of sugar until dissolved
Wait till blood temperature then stir in yeast
Cover and leave for 3 days stirring each day
Remove any scum
Syphon into beer bottles
Once in bottles, every now and then ( if swing top ) release some gas ( this also checks enough fizz is present! )
Google nettle recipes, They excel in more that beer!, I have made nettle ravioli before which was lovely and there are thousands of other lovely things to do with them!
.......Oh and don't listen to mum..... Plantain is far better at relieving the sting than Dock. Squish it up until juices flow and rub onto the affected area.