Why we need to rethink Ireland's hated nettle

Nettles have been used by cultures worldwide as herbal medicines, food, and clothing and are also important for wildlife
Why we need to rethink Ireland's hated nettle

Well known to all, the hated nettle is a much more versatile plant than people give it credit for. Picture: iStock

Being stung by nettles, which traditionally grow in damp soil, has always been one of the early experiences of children growing up in Ireland and elsewhere.

The needle-like sharp hairs on the plant can make human skin itchy, red, and swollen, but they also have an abundance of uses including ancient folk cures such as placing a dock leaf over the sore part for a few minutes.

Nettles have been used by cultures worldwide as herbal medicines, food, and clothing. Irish folklore is full of stories of how they are rich in nutrients.

Three meals of boiled nettles before the end of May were said to purify the blood and assure good health. And they have been used to treat a range of ailments from hay fever and measles to blood pressure and aching bones.

In the past, they were served as a cabbage like vegetable with potatoes and bacon. Soup and tea are still made from the plants, which have high levels of vitamin and protein.

Nettles are also regarded as important for wildlife, as they support many species of insect including butterflies and are vital to their survival.

Nettles can make up a tasty part of your healthy diet and have medicinal qualities.
Nettles can make up a tasty part of your healthy diet and have medicinal qualities.

Native American and European herbalists have used the fresh leaves to treat aches and pains. Native American and European herbalists have used them to treat aches and pains. Breeders have long fed them to horses to give them a sleek coat.

Farmers in Sweden put leaves in the diet of dairy cattle in the belief they can increases milk production. They are even used in some shampoos to control dandruff and boost hair loss. They are also said to be good for young ducks and turkeys.

Fibres from mature nettle stems have been used to make tablecloths and bedsheets in Scotland. The ancient Egyptians used them to treat lower back pain, while Roman troops rubbed them on their bodies to help stay warm.

Cloth made from the herb was widely used by the German army during World War 1 when there was a shortage of cotton. Fishing nets during this time were also largely made from nettle twine.

Nettles have been used for textiles since medieval times. Along with flax and hemp, they were the most important plant-based material in Europe. And there is now a resurgence of interest within the sustainable fashion industry.

An entry at the recent BT Young Scientist Exhibitionfocused on nettles as a sustainable solution to fast fashion. 

Orlaith Ni Ghallchobhair, St Kevin’s Community College, Dunlavin, Co Wicklow, embarked on the project when she realised most of her wardrobe was made from synthetic fibres.

While these garments can be recycled several times, it takes 200 years for them to break down.

She explained how she collected nettles and extracted the fibre, and then performed tests to compare their

strength, water absorption and insulating properties compared to polyester.

Orlaith's project included the creation of a jacket made from recycled material and lined with nettle fibre. She also knitted a scarf from nettle wool.

When I’m finished with the scarf, I can put it in my garden composter.

Orlaith concluded that nettles provide a biodegradable alternative for providing wool and yarn to the clothing industry. Her sustainably themed project won first prize in their category as well as a special award from the Environment Protection Agency. 

But she is not alone in showcasing how fibre from plants can be used to make clothes.

The Prince of Wales teamed up in 2019 with eco textile London designers Vin + Omi to produce a clothing collection from nettles picked in his Highgrove country estate in Gloucestershire. They are pioneers in sustainable fashion and in spreading awareness around the environmental impact of textile production.

A total of 3,000 nettle plants were harvested for the project to make the 10-piece collection, which was shown at London Fashion Week. The designers met the Prince the previous year and the conversation quickly turned to horticulture and its place in their fashion-focused research and development.

Vin later recalled: "We were looking at nettles, cow parsley and horseradish. We discussed it with Prince Charles, and he said:

I've got a lot of nettles in Highgrove, why don't you come and get them?

With the help of a group of students from Oxford Brookes University, the designers took up the offer of harvesting the royal nettles which they took away in two vans for a process that has been around for thousands of years.

It involves stripping the nettles of their leaves, exposing them to moisture, inducing partial rotting, and then separating the fibre for use in the creation of sustainable clothing.

The use of plants in promoting sustainability was also highlighted at the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition by Cian Walsh, a transition year student at St. Brogan's College in Bandon, Co Cork.

His project, winner of the Teagasc award at the exhibition, looked at the social, economic, and environmental benefits and drawbacks of growing hemp which can be processed into different eco- friendly products.

Cian said the benefits of hemp are endless. 

Farmers are willing to make the change. But Government investment will be needed to grow the industry.

Barry Caslin, Teagasc, said there has been a huge interest from farmers and industry representatives in developing a hemp industry. Many farmers are seeking land use alternatives.

Professor Gerry Boyle, director, said hemp research in Teagasc goes back to the 1950s. It proved that industrial hemp grows well in Irish soil, and climatic conditions.

The same can indeed be said of nettles, which have an abundance of uses but are often regarded as a stinging nuisance by gardeners pulling weeds.

Conservationists are now urging people to “grasp the nettle” and be nice to the green plant with the jagged edges because they are full of goodness.

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