Nettle, Urtica dioica
Nettles are found everywhere, and their very high nutritional value makes them a superfood. Before cotton became widely used, nettles were also a very important fibre plant in Finland, along with flax.
Nettles are best picked when the stems are short, about 10 cm. With older nettles, only the top leaves are good for eating. The seeds can also be gathered from late summer onwards. When picking nettles, it’s best to wear protective gloves to prevent painful stings. However, drying or blanching (that is, putting them in boiling water for a very short time, about 10 seconds) destroys the stinging hairs, making them safe to handle.
Due to their excellent nutritional value, nettles should be collected as plentifully as possible for drying and freezing. Amongst their other strengths, nettles contain plenty of iron, magnesium, calcium, silicon and vitamins A, B, C, E and K. Nettles have about the same calorific, i.e. energy content in calories per unit weight, as potatoes. They have about 60 times the silicon content of lettuce, five times the vitamin C content of oranges, seven times the iron content of spinach, and three times the calcium content of milk. Not bad for a single plant!
Something to try
Make nettle pesto by blanching and finely chopping 2 decilitres of nettle stems. Add 1-2 decilitres of sunflower seeds or pine nuts, 1-2 cloves of garlic, 0.5-1 decilitres of oil, 2 tablespoons of grated Parmesan cheese, and salt and pepper to taste. Blend all the ingredients together into a homogeneous mass.
Gathering the plants
Nettles can be gathered throughout the growing season, as new shoots grow rapidly. However, nettles should not be collected from overgrown areas or where the soil has too much nitrogen content, such as near dung pits or compost heaps. This is because nettles absorb nitrates, which can be harmful on account of being converted in the body to nitrites, which are toxic.
Other interesting facts
Before imported cotton became widely used in Finland, nettles were also a very important fibre plant, along with flax. Amongst their uses were production of paper and fabrics. As a fabric, nettles were used to make various items, such as tablecloths, sacks – and even underwear. Since nettles have a high tensile strength (that is they don’t break easily when pulled), nettle fibres were also good for making fishing nets and sails. Fabrics made from nettles are tough and durable, and are glossier than flax fabrics.
There is evidence that nettles were used even in the Stone Age, and up until as late as the 19th century were cultivated throughout Europe for making fibre for fabrics.