Stinging nettle facts

Stinging nettles (Urtica dioica) produce formic acid (similar to ant stings) which they hold in brittle hollow hairs. When you crush a plant, you break the hairs, causing the acid to burn your skin.

Simply brushing gently against a nettle is enough to break stinging hairs releasing the acid onto your skin which swells the surface and cause pain and itching. However painful, the sting is temporary, the pain subsides in 10 minutes or so.

In the Bottle Inn in Dorset England every year they have a stinging nettle eating competition. It looks horribly painful and according to competitors... it IS painful.

If you are stung, look around for large 'Doc' (Rumex obtusifolia) leaves which ease the pain of nettle stings. When rubbed against the skin, a doc leaf will release moist sap which has a lovely cooling, soothing effect on the skin. The rubbing action also heps to spead the acid over a wider area, this diminishing the localised pain (some people believe the doc leaf is alkaine, but a quick litmus test shows this is not the case).

Despite their fearsome reputation the nettle has many uses. Nettles are highly nutricious and grow so abundantly that ignoring them as a source of food is just wasteful.

In his excellent book Wild Food, John Phillips notes that a chemical change occurs in nettles around midsummer which makes them particularly bitter. Therefore nettles are best eaten in the spring only.

Crushing the leaves disables the stings so nettles can even be served in salads... if you are careful.

Stinging Nettle stems have long fibers of good strength and can be used as a linen substitute. Apparently during WWII nettles were used in german military uniforms.

Nettles can be made into drinks. Nettle beer, nettle wine and nettle champagne are all popular. Here is a nettle wine recipe I have tried and successfully tested for you. Nettles were onbe of the main ingredients in beer in England right up to victorian times. Nettles only lost their popularity as the main bittering agent in beer when new strains of hops became commercially available. Dried nettle leaf tea is still sold in massive quantities, but why buy nettle tea when you can make your own for free?

Nettles are High in iron, High in vitamin C, a source of Calcium and Magnesium. Nettle soup is a delicious treat and is probably the most well known way of eating nettles. Nettle tops, onion, butter, stock and milk are the basic ingredients. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has a very good nettle soup recipe to try on the Guardian website.

Alternatively just boil nettle tops and use as you would use spinach. A nettle and pine nut ravioli is one experiment I tried a few years ago and have returned to again and again.

Nettles have been used as a rennet for making vegetarian cheeses. When boiled in water with lots of salt, the result is a vegan rennet substitute.

Washing your hair in a nettle based shampoo is meant to be good at getting rid of dandruff.

Nettles are a good natural dye (green, obviously, but also yellow when boiled with alum)

Nettles are an Important habitat for our rare tortoiseshell butterflies so please consider leaving a nettle patch in your garden. Think of it as a crop rather than a weed.

Above all, in the garden, nettles make fantastic Compost activator and fertilizer. A lidded bucketful of nettles covered in water and left to stew for a week or two produces an all purpose liquid feed of high quality. Watered down 10 to 1 it can benefit the entire garden and particularly tomatoes.