Now is not the best time to write about herbs and what to do with them, at least not in our hemisphere: The six darkest weeks of the year are upon us.
But there are still some herbs that grow in the winter, at least as long as the ground isn’t covered in snow, and one of them is the nettle (Urtica dioica).
Nettles are another one of these herbs mentioned very early on in written medical history. Apollodorus, who was mentioned by Pliny the Elder and lived in the 3rd century BC, recommended it as a counterpoison to henbane and the bites of serpents and scorpions Nicander, who probably lived around the 2nd century BC, said nettles were an antidote against the venomous qualities of hemlock, toadstools and quicksilver. Pliny the Elder, at the beginning of the Christian era, prescribed the nettle’s own juice as a cure for its sting, a remedy which is still employed today by homeopaths. Last but not least, nettle (Old English stiðe) is one of the herbs invoked in the Anglo-Saxon Nine Herbs Charm which was recorded in the 10th century.
The nettle is one of the most highly valued in domestic medicine because it can ease so many illnesses and hurts. Tea brewed from its dried leaves is reputed to treat gout, asthma, tuberculosis, disorders of the kidneys and the urinary and gastrointestinal tract, skin issues, problems with the cardiovascular system, hemorrhage, influenza and rheumatism, and applied externally, it heals burns. People also make wine or beer from it.
What make nettles so valuable is their high content of vitamins A and C, iron, potassium, manganese and calcium, and the mature leaves are rich in protein, compared to other green leafy plants. They also contain plenty of sodium and lime, and thus have traditionally been added to cattle fodder and poultry food.
We harvest the nettles in our patch predominantly for food. Given the choice between Swiss chard, spinach and nettles, everyone here always opts for nettles. After harvesting – we use the small, young leaves only, cut before the plant begins to flower -, you blanch them, that is, throw them in boiling water for a few minutes, then drain, chop, and cook like you would Swiss chard or spinach, with a little butter or olive oil. Adding onion tastes good as well, and some people like to add a little heavy cream as well, after the leaves are soft and do not boil anymore.
Incidentally: Where nettles grow, the soil is good. They also attract beneficial insects. So think for a moment before you consider the nettles in your own yard ‘weeds’ and employ herbicides to get rid of them.