Updated: Sep 16, 2020
What better place to begin an exploration into nature connection than with the humble, recognizable and misunderstood stinging nettle? Its sheer abundance astounds and its multitude of uses open up a world of nourishing opportunities for the body, mind and soul. The nettle is perhaps the first plant in the UK that we learn as children, but our love of it quickly turns to fear after the first sting and the desire to understand it often disappears.
To feel at home in our place, to be a part of the nature that surrounds us and to nurture the hunter-gatherer urge that now lies dormant inside us is to release our wild-selves; to participate in spiritual union with the land. This gives our lives simple meaning and begins to satisfy the animal instincts that our civilisation has slowly repressed. Through beginning to understand our environment we again become indigenous, at home in our surroundings. This provides a deep inner peace. We enter into what the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh calls ‘interbeing’; the dance of life with life - all beings interconnected harmoniously. To me, this is the epitome of nature connectedness.
Without further ado.
The stinging nettle, or common nettle. A nutritious green, abundantly available for free in every corner of Britain. It appears in early Spring and this is the best time to eat its young leaves. They contain all the essential amino acids, are very high in protein, vitamin C, iron and chlorophyll. The latter two make the nettle an excellent base for blood tonics; nettles are said to improve circulation and reduce blood sugar levels, as well as act as a treatment for anaemia.
Later in the year, the stem can be crafted into a strong twine and foraged fishing line. Nettle fibres can even be spun into linen and were an important fibre up until the 19th century. Whipping with nettles around an affected area used to be performed to treat arthritic joints, something that is now being explored scientifically.
Do not eat nettle leaves once the flowers appear (between June and September) as during this time they will contain something called cystoliths, which is not good for humans to consume. The nettle will produce copious amount of seed in the summer (the seeds are edible and can be taken as an energy supplement), ready for the wind to take them for next year's regeneration.
How to Pick Nettles
Nettles pack a tingling sting but most of the spines are on the upper side of the leaves, so we can pick the upper clusters of young leaves by approaching them from the underside, even barehanded. An old saying goes;
“Gently touch a nettle and it’ll sting you for your pains. Grasp it as a lad of mettle and soft as silk remains”.
Personally, I find a careful approach lessens the stings I receive. Decent gardening gloves are probably the best bet - especially for nettle craft (such as rope making) that involves longer handling of the nettle. In some circles, the sting itself has been a ‘desirable’ benefit of the nettle; ‘Sado-botany’ refers to a nettle whipping for sexual pleasure/pain! Each to their own.
The best time for picking young top leaves for delicious teas and soups is during spring. You can also collect the spring’s abundance and freeze or dry the leaves to use later in the year. To neutralise the sting, a good soaking in warm water does the job well. Gently wilting them over a camp-fire also works. Dried stalks cracked lengthways create an excellent tinder.
Nettle tea has been described as similar in flavour to a mother's milk - reminding us that consuming such elemental, wild foraged foods is a connection to our basic needs both nutritionally and emotionally. Nettle tea is one of the greatest ways to work with this humble plant. Take 2-5 young leaves and rinse under cold water, finely chop and steep for 15 minutes in boiling water. I love to sweeten the tea with a little honey. You can consume the whole drink, leaves and all. Drink it slowly, feel it flow into your body, taste the wild flavours, show gratitude for natures generous gifts. It is packed with nutrition.
Chopped nettles steeped in hot water are said to give glow and health to the hair. Chop a bundle of nettles and allow them to brew in hot water until the water cools to a comfortable temperature, then remove the plant and wash your hair with the magic potion. You can use the whole plant or just the leaves.
There are stories of people who ate only nettles for years, including some mountain-dwelling gurus (who reportedly turned green...). The health benefits of nettles make this tempting, but I wouldn't recommend it. Better to try the classic approach of a lovely spring (or any time if you have saved leaves) soup or stew. Search online for a recipe that appeals to you. I love a simple batch with fresh garlic (ideally wild) and onion fried in butter, a load of stock, masses of nettles and some potato, cooked over an open fire. Pure bliss.
The many benefits of nettles make it a potent hedgerow medicinal. Folk medicine suggests that a variety of tinctures and decoctions can help to heal burns, skin problems and fungal infections, are anti-inflammatory, can balance urinary flow, soothe coughs, support the kidneys and even work as an aphrodisiac.
The nettle is a true gift to the forager, the veritable yin and yang of wild Britain. It is nutrient-dense, readily available, recognisable and easily incorporated into a regular routine of nature connectedness.