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Gardening: Stinging nettles offer nutritional value, medicinal uses and plenty of history

A few years ago, my husband and I were on our annual grafting trip when I noticed a plant growing at the edge of the orchard. I always keep watch on roadsides and woodlands to see what interesting plant life I might come across. This one seemed familiar, but I couldn’t quite place it.

Often, if stumped over ID, I will pick a sprig to smell it and see if I recognize the fragrance. Well, once I picked this, it was instantly clear what plant it was. My hand felt like it was on fire, and my skin quickly turned red with raised bumps. But despite my pain, I grabbed a used coffee cup and my pruners and dug a small clump to bring home.

I had been trying to get some stinging nettle for my home garden for several years by that time, and now was my chance. That poor clump suffered through another three weeks in the truck — cooked by day, chilled at night, dried out when I was too busy to water it, crushed under suitcases and other travel debris. When we got home, I looked at it and almost tossed the poor thing in the trash. There was no way it could possibly survive. But I decided to plant it anyway.

Survive it did, and by midsummer it was taking over one of my main garden beds. One might consider it a bit invasive. And the fact that it is rather painful to work around tends to mean that one allows it to do whatever it wants to do.

The plant is covered with tiny hollow hairs that contain formic acid and also histamine, along with some other painful alkaloids. A light brush easily embeds these tiny syringes into your skin, where they release the chemicals. It is believed this is an adaptation to protect the plant from herbivores. And plants that have been repeatedly cut or eaten back actually produce more of these stinging hairs than plants that are left alone.

I know you are wondering why would I want such a plant in my garden. Many would consider it to be a weed, or even a menace. But even something as wicked as this still might have so many benefits. The plant actually comes from Europe, but it was brought to America by early colonists because it was so useful to them. The fibers of the plant were used for weaving, it is highly nutritious to eat, and it’s still widely used as a medicinal plant for a number of ailments, ranging from arthritis to asthma to digestive issues — and as a hair tonic. It also apparently grows easily in many different conditions.

Now, I don’t intend to weave a an important aspect of health care, many people don’t wnything from it. And while I personally use plants and food asant to go there. But this plant is delicious. In Europe, it is used as a seasoning in cheeses and as a healthy spring tea. It is loaded with protein; vitamins A, B and C; several amino acids; and calcium, folic acid, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus and potassium. I use it as a base for pesto, pureed sauces and soups, and also sauté it quickly in hot oil to serve it as fresh wilted greens. It tastes like spring — fresh, pure, maybe a tiny bit like cucumbers, not quite lemony, but not quite not. Allowing it to wilt, pouring hot water on it, or letting it dry thoroughly will remove its ability to sting, but use gloves when picking, washing or anything else with it while its fresh. If you accidentally get a jolt, an antihistamine or cortisone cream will help to soothe the reaction.

The other reason I love this plant is that it attracts a wide variety of beneficial creatures to your garden. Toads, frogs and turtles love to hang out here, and actually I now have a toad that has moved in with it. It is also covered with many predatory insects. Hoverflies, lacewings and several species of parasitic wasps feed from the nectar of these flowers. And best of all, to me, it is a host plant for the caterpillars of the red admiral butterfly. Sure enough, this past summer, two broods were raised in this bed. Adult butterflies will come to nectar plants to feed, offering a glimpse of their beauty. But put in a large food plot for their babies, and they will linger in your gardens for months.

So, before you condemn those weeds in your garden and yank them out, check and see if maybe they have some other useful characteristic. I did move the nettles to a more out-of-the-way spot where I could let it run wild. But I am still overjoyed that the tiny, crushed, dried-out clump survived and has made its home in my garden.


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