Winter is almost over. The trees start to bloom, and the first dandelions are raising their small, yellow heads in the grass. The days get longer, the weather gets warmer, and nature is slowly reborn after a long hibernation. And it starts to offer us its health magic in the form of herbs. The stinging nettle is among the first such plants to emerge, as early as mid-February.
But isn’t stinging nettle a weed?
Given the unpleasant feeling you get after being stung by a nettle, some might consider it to be a weed. A most unpleasant one, which fights back. But along with some others, the stinging nettle has earned the distinction of being a “beneficial weed”. Aside from its obvious uses, it is thought to enhance essential oil production in nearby herbs, making it a great choice for herbal gardens. But its growth is also an indicator of the land’s fertility.
The stinging nettle is often cultivated for its medicinal properties, or simply for food.
Traditional medicine treats the stinging nettle as an overall beneficial plant. In Austria, it’s customary to consume a tea made of it to treat disorders of the kidney and the urinary tract. But it’s thought to have beneficial effects on other systems, too: the skin, the cardiovascular system, or the digestive tract, among others. In other parts of Europe nettle is used as a “galactagogue”, an agent to promote lactation. Some use nettle tea to rinse their hair after washing it – stinging nettle is thought to be an effective way to prevent and control dandruff. And to be overall beneficial to the scalp.
Stinging nettle on the table
Nettle leaves are rich in vitamin C, potassium, iron, manganese, and calcium. And their flavor is similar to spinach when cooked. Only the young leaves are used for cooking, that emerge early in the spring. Later, when the plant enters the flowering phase, the leaves develop a substance that can irritate the urinary tract, which makes them unsuitable for consumption.
The young leaves of stinging nettle can be used in a way similar to spinach. The blanched and finely chopped leaves are great as a puree with cream and garlic, but they can be used for soups, and even in a spring salad after the leaves are thoroughly washed (to eliminate the stinging hairs on their surface). You can add it to a pesto, use it to fill a pie, or even as a filling for ravioli. And here you can find a more sophisticated use for this humble, but belligerent plant.