Sandy’s Garden ... stinging nettles

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

At the very beginning of April, I’d like to share with you a few ideas about a plant which had much more significance for our ancestors than ever it has for us.

Mark you, in this sophisticated age we don’t rate one of our ancestors’ delicacies at all, regarding the plant as a pest rather than as a blessing. For the plant that they so welcomed was the Stinging Nettle, Urtica dioica, formerly called ‘heg-beg’ in some parts of Scotland. Most commonly found growing on waste land, nettles are rich in minerals such as iron, calcium, manganese and potassium and in vitamins A and C. Their leaves are the natural equivalent of the vitamin tablets so commonly taken today; and they served the same purpose as these tablets, replenishing bodies run down by long Winter months of cold, dull weather.

But though most of us wouldn’t dream of including nettles as any part of our diet nowadays, recipes for nettle soup are still frequently found in contemporary Scottish recipe books; and Claire Macdonald, the Scots hotelier and exponent of traditional cookery, has written: “Nettles are traditionally eaten in the Spring as a means of cleansing the body. I don’t think you need an excuse to eat nettles - they are fresh-tasting and make a very good soup and they are delicious if they are picked when they are very tiny - about 5-6 inches, or 10-12 centimetres tall. If you wait until they are quite tall, they have a bitter taste. As with all soups, nettle soup will be as good as the stock used in the making. Wear gloves to pick the nettles.” I particularly like that last point and recall a childhood trick I used to play on my more naïve friends. “Nettles don’t sting this month,” I’d say, tempting them to touch one. And as I ran off, I’d call, “They don’t sting this month but they do sting you!”

But our ancestors did more with nettles than simply turn them into soup. They also brewed nettle ale; ate boiled nettle leaves as a vegetable rather like cabbage; and made nettle tea, which has made something of a comeback in recent years with herbalists. You can actually buy nettle tea-bags from some herbalists’ shops, tea-bags which yield a tea which is thought to relieve asthma, to lower blood pressure and to be a good laxative.

But the nettle, which thrives in poor soil and is native to most parts of Scotland, has fallen from favour with most of us. Because it is a native plant, it springs up readily whenever the opportunity occurs; and we describe it as a weed precisely because it thrives where we don’t want it to grow. So today’s gardening books are more likely to include tips on how to get rid of nettles rather than suggest some of the many uses they have. Maybe the happy medium is to tolerate nettles in some less-easily accessible parts of the garden, perhaps by allowing them to grow among taller plants at the back of borders. The internet will yield many tips on making use of the plants’ leaves and you might just derive some of the benefits our ancestors enjoyed.

Sandy Simpson, Polmont Horticultural Society