Cookbooks, Chemists and Catwalks

Originally published May 2011

Hello everyone! Many apologies for re-joining you so late on in this, the second decade of the 21st Century; unlike Mother Gaia I appear to be in hibernation mode still! Despite the chill winds, Spring has definitely sprung around us and our little reserve is teeming with life in all its glory.

The feathered folk, though fewer in number than in previous years, are producing an admirable dawn chorus to raise our spirits in the early hours. Clouds of insects swarm over a pond which, despite the driest March on record, is still two-thirds full. Not that you can see much of the water; ‘Jenny Greenteeth’ (see River Hags – July 2010) has already claimed her place to create a ribbon of speckled green stretching from beneath the rock face and fernery out towards our rather dilapidated bench (soon to be repaired!).

The wild flowers are looking spectacular this year. The pale pink and white carpet of Wood Anemomes is punctuated with bright yellow Creeping Buttercup and our fragile looking Blue Bells are nodding in the breeze. The purple flowers of the Spotted Orchid stand erect above their long, glossy leaves from which their name is derived whilst the aroma of garlic permeates through the trees as the snow-white flowers of the Ramsoms explode outwards like a series of mini supa-novae.


I feel that, late as it is, this first offering of the year should include our customary show of hands. So, for those of you with an eclectic train of thought, what is the link between the Nordic deities of legend, a rather unpleasant skin complaint and a staple ingredient in every forager’s guide book?

The answer of course is the ubiquitous Nettle and before I reveal the connection with the denizens of Asgard let us have a look at the taxonomy of this common ‘weed’. Nettles are found in most places throughout the world and our hallowed Isle is home to three species: the Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica), the Dwarf Nettle (Urtica urens) and the Roman Nettle (Urtica pilulifera). Legend tells us that the latter species was brought over by the Sandal’d and Toga’d Ones to chafe their limbs with in order to keep warm in our inhospitable climate. How they managed this supreme act of masochism in the Winter is up for debate, but why ruin a good yarn!


The medics among you will have already made the connection between the Genus Urtica (from the Latin Uro, to burn) and the medical condition Urticaria known to most of us as Hives. Anyone who has been stung by Nettles (everyone, surely!) will appreciate just how literally the plant lives up to its name. Nettle venom is a complex substance the constituents of which include formic acid (the same as ants), histamine, acetylcholine and serotonin; chemicals fiendishly picked by Ma Nature to interact and inflict a goodly dose of pain and a reaction which can last for several hours if not treated. There are huge debates throughout the scientific world (well, in the pub anyway!) over the efficacy of Doc (Rumex sp.) leaves for Nettle stings. On balance it seems that the curative effect is dependent on how quickly it is applied to the area. As Doc contains alkaline substances it will neutralise the formic acid but wait a few minutes and no amount of rubbing will alleviate the discomfort. There are those who argue the whole thing was dreamt up by those Old Wives as the nearest thing to hand near a bunch of Nettles is invariably a Doc leaf or two.


An indisputable fact is the vast number of Nettle-based recipes for everything from soup and savoury puddings to beer, wine and cordial. In addition to feasting on the plant, people have been pouring it in their hair in tonics, rubbing it into their skin as cream or simply just stinging themselves to help counteract the rheumatics. From the wode painted rivals of the Romans right through to modern day, the medicinal virtues of Urtica sp. have been exploited and old Herbalists such as Culpeper had a field day (so to speak!).

From an ecological perspective the Nettle is high up the ‘most desirable’ list for any nature reserve. Butterflies such as the Peacock, Small Tortoiseshell and Red Admiral as well as several species of moth lay their eggs on the plant in order that the caterpillars can gorge themselves on the leaves. Numerous lice and weevils live exclusively in Nettle beds and ants ‘farm’ Nettle Aphids for their nectar. Birds, at the top of this particular food chain, feast on all of the above as well as the plant seeds.


The Scandinavian Gods I hear you cry! A perusal of the ancient Odinic Sagas will unearth many references to Nettles. The plant is often associated with the hammer-wielding Thor and burning it on your fire was supposed to offer protection against lightning strikes. TQW LokiThe infamous Loki was credited with spinning a fishing net from Nettles; a myth which has its roots firmly in reality as thread and cloth have been produced from Nettle fibre since the Bronze Age. During WW1, as cotton was in short supply, the German army made extensive use of Nettle cloth and recently the BBC’s Kylie Pentelow famously wore her ‘Nettle Dress’ to present her Arts programme.

So there it is, from the cookbook to the chemist to the catwalk, a very brief dip into the world of our common garden stingers. It is well worth further reading. What I certainly do not recommend is the method of harvesting the plant put forward in Culpeper’s Complete Herbal.

‘Nettles are so well known, that they need no description; they may be found by feeling, in the darkest night.’
Nicholas Culpeper 1616-54

Bring on the Romans!

As usual, put me right at

Paul Johnson


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