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Taking the sting out of ‘weeds’: nettles

It’s officially Spring and I am overjoyed to discover fresh green nettle shoots emerging all around our wildlife garden and set aside area. Many view stinging nettles as unwanted and inconvenient weeds. Here at Denmark Farm Conservation Centre we are very proud of our abundantly growing nettles (Urtica dioica) and positively encourage them. Nettles are one of the most undervalued plants growing in the UK, preferring  a rich, moist and acid soil where they grow vigorously up to 1.5 metres tall. However they can grow almost anywhere that they can gain a foothold in disturbed soil.

Stinging nettle shoots
Fresh green stinging nettles burst through the ground to celebrate Spring’s abundance.

Nettles have a huge range of uses, for food, medicine, compost and fibre and also as one of the important wildlife plants we know. At least thirty insect species feed on the nettle and four of our common butterflies are dependent on it as their main larval food plant. Without the common nettle we are unlikely to experience the pleasures of the Red Admiral, Small Tortoiseshell, Peacock and Comma butterflies in our gardens as these all favour nettles to lay their eggs upon and as a food plant for the growing caterpillars. The Nettle’s leaves are rich in vitamins and minerals and the young shoots and tips make a delicious and nutritious soup which, for me personally, is the ultimate spring feast. There are hundreds of variations on this recipe but here’s how I make it:

  • Saute 1 onion or some late season leeks or even some wild garlic leaves in a little butter or oil.
  • Peel and chop 2-3 medium-sized potatoes and add these to the pan
  • Add 1 litre of vegetable or other stock (I use bouillon)
  • Bring to a gentle simmer for 15-20 minutes until the potatoes are soft
  • Thoroughly wash a large bowl of fresh nettle tops then add these to the pan
  • Cook gently for another 10 minutes until the nettles have completely wilted but still a good green colour
  • Use a hand-held blender or food processor to blend to a smooth consistency
  • Add salt and pepper to taste
  • Serve with a swirl of sour cream, natural yogurt or in my case some crumbled local Ranscombe Goats Cheese and a slab of soda bread.

Fresh picked nettle shoots - full of vitamins & minerals
Fresh picked nettle shoots – full of vitamins & minerals
nettle soup
Nettle soup: Delicious and nutritious. Nettles are a much under-rated resource growing abundantly on our doorsteps. Great for wildlife and biodiversity too.

Other interesting uses include; making a liquid feed for growing plants, a medicinal tea from dried leaves and another one of my favourites, recently discovered during a bushcraft course, cordage!. Here is a video where Ray Mears shows you how to make string from Nettles If you’d like to learn more about conservation, ecology, countryside crafts and sustainability sign up for our monthly e-newsletter or keep an eye on our website events page.

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