Nettles probably wouldn’t make it into the top 10 favourite plants of many gardeners. They’re a weed – invasive, perennial, difficult to get rid of and, as if that wasn’t enough, they have a nasty sting… do you need any more reasons to eradicate them from your garden?
But nettles have their good points too… no, really they do. In their defence, nettles are fantastically important wildlife plants, providing food for lots of native insects. Nettles are the larval food plant for the beautiful comma, peacock, red admiral and small tortoiseshell butterflies. Their eggs are laid on a patch of nettle plants in a sunny spot, where the caterpillars hatch out to happily munch their way through the leaves. Although I must admit that in all the years I’ve had nettles in the garden, I’ve never seen eggs or caterpillars on them – maybe this year…
The early spring growth of nettles attracts aphids – the soft, fresh green leaves are full of the sappy liquid they love. Aphids might not be something many gardeners would plan to attract, but they provide food for hoverflies and ladybirds, helping to build up populations of these beneficial insects ready to tackle pest outbreaks later in the year.
And it’s not just the garden wildlife that can enjoy the fresh nettle growth early in the year. Nettles have long been used as a tonic in spring. They are rich in minerals and have a high vitamin C content. Gather the young leaves (wearing gloves of course!), wash them well and cook in boiling water for a couple of minutes. The leaves lose their sting once cooked, and can be used like spinach in risottos, soups, frittata, pasta dishes… Nettle tea is said to be good for strengthening hair, skin and bones (steep washed young leaves in boiling water for a couple of minutes before straining), and makes a good plant feed too (soak crushed nettles in rainwater for three or four weeks – away from the house, it does get smelly, dilute 1 part nettle tea to 10 parts water and use to feed plants).
If you want to have a go at growing nettles, but don’t want them getting out of control, there are ways of keeping them confined to one area, or trying to at least. Sink an old bucket with holes in the bottom or a large pot into the ground and plant the nettles into this to restrict the roots. Cut the plants back before they set seed in summer – this has two advantages, it stops the nettles seeding all over the garden and encourages fresh growth.
We had our first nettle harvest of the year this weekend – not a huge amount, but enough to add to some leeks from the garden and a tin of cannellini bean to make a bowl of tasty, garlicky beans. Definitely a seasonal dish – I’m linking it to this month’s Simple and in Season being hosted by the lovely Louisa at Chez Foti. This blog challenge always produces a great collection of seasonal recipes – and anyone can join in, why not take a look and maybe submit your own seasonal favourite?
And if you have a favourite nettle dish I’d love to hear about it – always looking for new ideas…
Nettles & Beans
150g fresh nettle leaves
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, plus more to drizzle over the beans
3 cloves garlic, crushed
1 leek, finely sliced
1x400g tin cannellini beans, rinsed and drained
pinch of dried chilli flakes
2 tsp sumac
Wash the nettle leaves, then cook them for a couple of minutes in boiling water. Drain the nettles, retaining ¼ cup of the cooking water, and refresh the leaves in cold water.
Heat the oil in a medium sized pan. Add the garlic and leeks and cook on a gently heat for three or four minutes. Then add the cannellini beans and chilli flakes, and continue cooking to warm the beans through.
While the beans are cooking, squeeze any excess water from the nettles and chop them finely. Add to the pan, stir and heat until everything is nice and hot. Stir in the sumac and some salt to taste.
Remove the bean and nettle mix from the heat. Tip into a serving bowl and drizzle with a little olive oil.