"Tender-handed stroke a nettle, And it stings you for your pains; Grasp it like a man of mettle, And it soft as silk remains. 'Tis the same with common natures, Use 'em kindly, they rebel; But, be rough as nutmeg-graters, And the rogues obey you well," - Aaron Hill, 1750Spring is finally here, I was helping out at the Colonial living history farm where I volunteer sometimes. I was anxious to see how it changed over the winter and to see all of the animals. Along the path up to the farmhouse, we have stinging nettle growing along our split rail fence. They are just springing up, the best time to eat them. At this stage they don't sting because the poison fulled barbs have not developed fully.
Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica), is a plant native to Europe, North America and Asia. It is commonly considered a nuisance, like poison ivy, due to the fact that its leaves have thousands of tiny hollow needles filled with chemicals that will be transferred into your skin if you touch it. It has been used since the Bronze Age to make cloth, green dye, twine, fishing nets, vegetarian rennet (to help make cheese,) and was even eaten as a vegetable. If you boil stinging nettle, it will not sting when you eat it.
Stinging Nettle was popular in folk medicine and folklore. It is one of the 9 herbs listed in the10th century, Anglo-Saxon 9 Herbs Charm. Robert Kay Gordon, an English Literature professor and author claimed this poem was "clearly an old heathen thing which ha[d] been subjected to Christian censorship." The poem describes mixing herbs together to create medicine. Perhaps the mixture really worked as Nettles are still used in medicine today, some examples can be seen at the University of Maryland website. A reading of the 9 Herbs Charm can be heard at Anglo Saxon Aloud. According to Irish Tradition, 3 bowls of Nettle Soup, when eaten in the month of May, will prevent rheumatism for the year. A recipe for Irish Nettle Soup can be found at Soup Kitchen Recipes.
Nettles had been used to make a cheaper form of linen in Medieval and Colonial times. In the 1850s, Germany used Nettles to make high quality paper and later used nettle fiber during WWI to make military uniforms, the uniforms were made up of 85% nettles due to the cotton shortage.
If you are among the brave and are considering trying to eat Stinging Nettle, The Bottle Inn, in Marshwood, England hosts a national raw nettle eating contest in which the contestants can numb their tongues with nothing but beer. It sounds painful to me! (Especially when they talk about facial paralysis.)
For those interested in growing their own heirloom Nettles for soups and salads, Local Harvest, sells seed packets. I was so happy to be back on the farm. I was glad to see the animals again, they are getting so big, especially the pigs. I had to clean out the kitchen in the farmhouse but it was worth it to see all of the people I hadn't seen all winter. I guess if I want to try some Nettle, now would be the time to do it. I don't know if I am that brave, just yet.