Why you should hug nettles

Many kitchens have already adopted the plant: boiled nettle with walnuts is a common dish in Georgia, for example, while Romanians make sour soup with young nettles, according to Kriegel and colleagues. In Britain, the leaves are used to wrap a type of Cornish cheese called Yarg, altering the acidity of its surface and affecting the curd’s ripening. And you can also make bread with nettle by either embedding the leaves or grinding them into flour. (However, Kriegel and colleagues point out that stinging nettles must always be properly prepared before consumption to avoid allergic reactions.)

Finally, there are the myriad medicinal uses. Many of the claimed herbal benefits lack scientific evidence, making them most useful for their placebo effects, but there have been some studies with intriguing results. For example, a stinging nettle supplement could help alleviate the symptoms of urinary tract infections and an enlarged prostate. There are now claims that stinging nettles may help treat the symptoms of hay fever, but here the evidence is a little timid.

So why aren’t stinging nettles still being bred and sold – or allowed to grow in gardens as free plants with bonus traits?

For now, the plant remains more likely to be seen in the wild than in a field. One reason is that post-harvest can be expensive for farmers: the stems and leaves need to be dried for processing, which can be costly. However, if consumer demand for stinging nettles increased – as food, medicine or textile – it could transform the economy.

However, there’s really no reason not to grow them elsewhere. Wild nettles, with their delicate flowers and distinctive pointed leaves, bear a strong resemblance to another unrelated group of plants, the deadnettles (in the genus lamium) – which are popular garden additions actively sought to add lush foliage to pots and borders. (Dead nettles are believed to have deliberately evolved a similar appearance to lure animals to avoid them, even though they don’t have a stinger.)

Who knows, 10 years from now nettles could be in some of the most meticulously tended gardens – or even a part of your wardrobe.

*Richard Fisher is senior journalist for BBC Future and Tweets @rifish

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