This series is turning out to be a little bit like ‘Tuesday is Let’s Find Out What Verity is Excited to Have in Her Garden Day.’ Because, guess what I found in there the other day? Good ol’ stinging nettles (Urtica dioica).
I didn’t plant them; I actually didn’t even recognise them at first. Well, I kind of did – I buy bunches of fresh nettles regularly from the farmers’ market to cook – but when I cautiously patted at them to the see if they’d sting, it didn’t hurt, so I assumed they were a component of some mixed ‘cottage garden’ type seeds I’d scattered around at the end of summer, and would eventually have nice flowers. Then, the other day while doing some other garden work I brushed my hand and arm past and came away with a whole bunch of little red welts. My first thought: ‘YES! They ARE stinging nettles!!’; My second thought: ‘Ow, how long is this going to take to stop hurting?’ Luckily either these ones weren’t particularly sting-y, or I’m not overly sensitive to nettle toxins, because the pain and redness didn’t actually last very long.
Where did they come from? I think it’s because a few months back I poured a bucketful of nettle tea around the garden. I had a couple of bunches of nettles I hadn’t got around to cooking, and not wanting them to go to waste I thought I’d use them to feed my plants (they’re very high in nutrients, as I’ll discuss below). I found a recipe here… You’ll notice it says ‘don’t use any bits with seeds’… Being a) probably short on time that day and b) kind of lazy anyway I blithely ignored that bit and just stuck the whole lot in a bucket of water with a lid on it. And left it for a looooooooooong time. Months and months. Eventually I got sick of the sight of the bucket sitting in its corner and decided to just pour it out around the place. I have no idea if it actually did anything much for the garden (which is generally pretty healthy anyway, thank goodness) but those seeds must have been pretty tough. There they are, springing up all over the place. You know, pretty soon my garden is going to be overrun with just about every invasive plant you can think of… Dandelions, nettles, horehound (I’ve got that too)… All I need is some cleavers and I’ll be set.
It was kind of ironic that the day I discovered the bona fide presence of nettles in my garden I had actually cooked up two whole bunches of them. I’d been inspired by this post from Nourished Kitchen, and had made up a nettle and cheese pie, kind of like spanikopita.
2 large bunches fresh nettles
1 small onion, finely chopped
450g feta cheese, drained and crumbled
4 eggs, beaten
Freshly ground black pepper
Butter for greasing
20x30cm Pyrex dish
Bring several litres of water to the boil in a very large stockpot. Rinse the nettles (wear gloves while handling them) and then blanch them in the boiling water for 2-3 minutes. Drain the cooked nettles (reserve the water to use in the garden when it’s cool, unless you’re super paranoid about having a garden full of nettles). When the nettles have cooled, remove the toughest stems and chop the remainder coarsely.
Grease the dish with butter and preheat the oven to 180C. Mix all the ingredients thoroughly in a bowl and then spread into the dish. Bake for about 45 minutes (but check from about 35) until golden brown and set. Serve hot or cold, with lemon wedges.
Nettles have an interesting taste; green, but not bitter. I can’t put quite the right word on it but think ‘earthy’ and you’ll be on the right track. Young (spring) nettles are best for eating as older ones can be a bit gritty in texture, which is apparently due to the development of silica crystals in the leaves. As you might expect from something that is high in silica and other minerals (calcium, magnesium and iron) nettles – as food or tea – are particularly good for maintaining the health of skin and hair. They also have a longstanding reputation as an alterative; they both cleanse and build the blood – this is the main thing I’m looking for when I drink them as a tea. There’s a lovely post about nettles as a spring tonic over at Red Root Mountain. Nettles are food and drink for what my herbal medicine teacher called ‘situations of increased demand’: stress, leading to the need for deep nutrition.
Energetically nettles are, unsurprisingly, associated with the warlike planet Mars and the element of Fire; but their profoundly nourishing nature also speaks of their connection with nurturance and motherhood. They are a herb of the strong, powerful Mother, connecting us with her strength and supporting our own. It’s for this reason that nettles are a key ingredient in our Mothers’ Garden tea blend.