We had a small patch of stinging nettles on the side of the path to the back where we walk the dogs every morning. The kids despise the plant because of the painful red rash they received in the summer when they brushed up against it. We, too, have been victim of those stings and worked at eradicating the patch from time to time in the early spring when the plants first emerged. But it is a persistent plant and it has managed to spread itself into a bigger patch with some colonies here and there around the farm.
Delivering cheese to Blooming Hill Farm, we were surprised to see mounds of it, complete with the stingers for sale next to their organic vegetables. We heard time and time again that it was an extremely beneficial herb and people made health tonics from it.
When it started emerging this spring, we did some research and found a great article by Euell Gibbons about how to use it. First of all, like asparagus, it must be gathered at just the right stage to eat. The stinging nettle has perennial underground rhizomes and from these tender shoots spring up as soon as the weather is warm. Gibbons recommends taking the tender tops of the young first grown nettles, before they bloom and when they are less than a foot tall.
Wearing gloves and long sleeves, over the weekend, we gathered a large bucket full of the young nettles, none more than 8 inches. Still wearing gloves, we rinsed them in the sink and then popped them in a pot of boiling water until tender. The vast bulk of greens quickly melted down to a large bowlful. Gibbons claimed that the cooking would completely destroy the nettles’ stinging properties and convert the venom into wholesome food. We buttered, salted and dashed with balsamic vinegar. We ate the first mouthful with trepidation. No stings and a delicious better than spinach, nutty flavor. Hmmmm. It was really really tasty, really.
The next day, we repeated the experiment and offered the results up to the teenager who favors greens. Same response. Hmmmm.
Then we tried it as a side at a delicious steak and roasted potato family dinner after everyone had worked hard all afternoon doing fencing. It went over just as well although there was some disbelief that the scrumptious cooked green was the stinging nettle.
We estimate that we can harvest the tender greens for the next few weeks and add it to the evening meal. Gibbons states that in addition to their good taste, nettles are rich in vitamins A and C, amazingly high in protein, filled with chlorophyll, and exceedingly rich in many trace minerals. How can you beat that? Also Gibbins recommends that cooking water, bright green when finished should not be discarded since it is full of nutrients. We have given it to the piglets, the chickens, the compost bin.
But it doesn’t end there…we have further experiments to do on the stinging nettle after we finish the spring harvest.
Gibbons explains that while no grazing animal will eat a live nettle, when they are mowed and dried, all kinds of livestock will eat them avidly and thrive on them. Horses get shinier coats and improve in health when fed dried nettles. Cows give more and richer milk when fed on nettle hay. Hens lay more eggs when powdered nettle leaves are added to their mash and those eggs have higher food value. Even the manure from nettle-fed animals is improved and makes better fetrilizer.
So we figure we will cut the stalks on a regular basis after we have finished the tender stage and hang them in the summer hoop house to dry. Then we will store them in empty grain bags and feed them over next winter to the goats and chickens. It will be interesting to see the results.
Finally, nettles have a number of uses in the vegetable garden. They encourage beneficial insects. The growth of stinging nettle is an indicator that an area has high fertility (especially phosphorus) and has been disturbed. Nettles contain a lot of nitrogen and so are used as a compost activator or can be used to make a liquid fertilizer which although somewhat low in phosphate is useful in supplying magnesium, sulfur and iron.
We plan to move as many of the colonies of nettles around the property to create beds in more out of the way places such as between the perimeter fence and the hoop house and on the edges of the hillside garden and up by the future bee hives, places where there is not a lot of traffic. We are going to try to make nettle tea to fertilize garden plants as well as add it to our compost bins to add nitogen.
The stinging nettle seems to be a remarkable plant, as we have been told. We’ll keep you posted on our experiments with it as the season progress.