Sometimes it is just worth slowing down for a moment and appreciating a single plant.
A plant worth pondering is the much-maligned stinging nettle. I have chosen this plant because holds a notorious reputation, and fear, in the young and the old. It maybe because of this that we rush past this plant on our busy commutes or rambles. As a society I think we have purged it from our collective imagination when it comes to appreciating nature. However, I can think of few other plants that should hold such a central appreciation of the power and the beauty of nature that our stinging nettle does.
The way it looks
Nettle green is a recognised term. It might be because of its vivid, vibrant green. My feeling it is also that it has a history of being used as a pigment for dyeing cloth. But not only glorious greens but golden yellows, browns, greys and even black are the colours of nettle dye. Colour aside, the architecture of the plant is something to behold. Its rigid angular ribbed stem flushed with purple looks architect designed. Its glasslike hairs that catch the light like little icicles; the vein-etched leaves like they have been cut with pinking shears. Its flowers and seeds might be small but when seen as a cluster resemble little pearls on strings.
The way it feels
Yes, it stings but its just in self-defence. Gardeners have been using the syringe of its sharp little needles, full of histamine, serotonin and choline to provide enough irritation, in the short-term, to relieve old aching joints (like the fingers). The act even has a name: urtication. I use it myself on a particular, arthritic finger-joint and it works for me. But its not just the feeling of pain it gives, the wonderful fibres of the nettle are long and strong. They have been used for thousands of years and make a durable cloth, much like linen. I make string from the fibre all the time.
The way it smells
Nettles in flower provide a most wonderful smell that evokes the margins of the English meadow. It is a smell that takes me straight back to warm humid late spring days of my childhood. If you ever drink a bottle of English bacchus wine it captures those notes of nettle ‘blossom’ perfectly.
The way it tastes
As a tea it tastes like fermented hay. Some even say it taste of mother’s milk! As a beer or cordial its tastes a little like elderflower. It is delicious and every year, my grandfather’s recipe for it is dusted off (find it below). Its tonic effect is well known to promote kidney function and there is a long list of reported health benefits from its consumption along with various vitamins and minerals. It has been used as a spring green and an addition to a potage for centuries. I make a wild garlic and nettle pesto out of it and wow children by letting them toast the leaves over a fire before eating them as surprisingly delicious crisps. As a hair tonic I have found few other things that are as effective in treating dandruff. The caterpillar that transforms into the wonderful Peacock butterfly relies on it too as does the small tortoiseshell butterfly. There are few plants (save for maybe comfrey) that make such a good liquid feed for your garden. Just throw some in your water butt and let them rot down. Nettles are a good sign of a fertile soil and can turn sodden clay into something more useful, given time.
The way it sounds
Every plant has a sound when plucked by the wind. The coarse leaves and hairy stems of a crowded nettle patch whisper. The do not rustle, or sing, or creak or swish. They whisper. It evokes a strong memory. Try it sometime.
There is something absolutely lovely about the nettle that deserves more attention on your walks. Next time you see a patch, stop, take notice and spend a little time with this amazing little herb.
Grandpa’s Nettle Beer
This recipe makes 1 gallon (just multiply for larger quantities – if you have larger pans then I would go for 2, 3 or more gallons because the extra effort is minimal over and above 1 gallon).
- 1 kilo of young nettle tops
- zest & juice of 2 lemons
- 25 g of cream of tartar
- 500g of demerara sugar or honey
- 1 gallon of water (or birch or sycamore sap)
- Some yeast
- Pick young nettles (before flowering or they contain cystoliths that can irritate the kidneys of some people) – to avoid this you can pick young or continually ‘mow’ an area of nettles and keep harvesting them and cutting them back to prevent flowering/seeding.
- Wash the nettle tops
- Boil them in the water (or birch or sycamore sap) and simmer for 15 minutes (it can be done in two batches if you have small pans)
- Meanwhile – juice and zest the lemons and mix in the cream of tartar and the sugar (or honey)
- Strain the boiled nettles to separate the broth into a clean (sterilised) fermenting bin.
- Dissolve in the sugar/juice/tartar mix
- Leave to cool to room temp
- Then add yeast (if you have taken a small cup of the broth and mixed in the yeast to get it started) – then mix it in and give it a good stir. Use a clean stirrer.
- Cover with cloth and leave in moderately warm (ie not cold) place for 4-6/7 days.
- Clean (sterilise) bottles and tops.
- Place a half level teaspoon of sugar into each bottle (will help give the nettle beer that fizz due to secondary fermentation). Fill bottle to within an a couple of inches of the top. But leave a little space for the build-up of Co2.
- Cap and leave in a dark, warm (ie not cold) place for a week.
- The longer you leave it (2+ weeks to a month or so) then better it will taste and the more compacted the sediment will be.
- Chill well before opening. Decant carefully to leave sediment behind.