Why You Should Adopt Stinging Nettles
Many cuisines have already adopted the plant: Boiled nettles with nuts are a common dish in Georgia, for example, while Romanians make a sour soup with young nettles, according to Kriegel and his colleagues. In the UK the leaves are used to wrap a type of Cornish cheese called yarg, altering the acidity of its surface and affecting the way the curd matures. And you can also make bread with nettle, either by coating the leaves or grinding it to make a flour. (Kriegel and his colleagues point out, however, that nettles should always be properly prepared before consumption, to avoid any allergic reactions.)
Finally, there are the myriad of medicinal uses. Many claimed herbal benefits lack scientific evidence, so they may be more useful for their placebo effects, but there have been studies with intriguing results. For example, a dietary supplement containing nettles could help relieve symptoms of urinary tract infections and an enlarged prostate. Meanwhile, there have been claims that nettles may help treat hay fever symptoms – however, the evidence here is a bit more tentative.
So why aren’t nettles grown and sold more widely – or allowed to grow in gardens as free plants with bonus properties?
For now, the plant remains more likely to be seen in the wild than growing in a field. This is partly because post-harvest can be expensive for farmers: stems and leaves need to be dried to be processed, which can be costly. Yet, if consumer demand for nettles were to increase – as food, medicine or textile – it could change the economy.
There really is no reason not to let them grow elsewhere. With their delicate flowers and distinctive pointed leaves, wild nettles bear a strong resemblance to another unrelated group of plants, dead nettles (genus Lamium) – which are popular garden additions, actively sought after for adding lush foliage to pots and borders. (It is thought that dead nettles might have developed a similar appearance on purpose, to trick animals into avoiding them despite not having a sting.)
Who knows, in 10 years nettles might be in some of the best kept gardens, or even in your closet.
*Richard Fisher is a senior reporter for BBC Future and tweets @rifish
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