Something that we presently have growing abundantly in the damper parts of the quinta by the stream are stinging nettles (Urtica dioica) and docks (Rumex spp.). Far from being unwanted plants, these are valuable food and medicinal plants.
Nettles accumulate nitrates and are high in minerals (especially iron, silicon, and calcium) and vitamins (A and C). They make liquid fertiliser, an insect repellent and a hair tonic. The juice of the leaves, or a decoction of the herb, can be used as a rennet substitute in curdling milks. An infusion of the stems and leaves provides an organic pesticide against plant mites or aphids. They make tomatoes resistant to spoilage, encourage strawberries to grow, and increase the essential oil content of nearby aromatic herbs. They tend to grow in soil rich in phosphorus and nitrogen, so are indicators of good soil fertility, and are among the first colonisers of disturbed soil.
Docks with their deep roots are also good mineral accumulators and both make excellent compost activators and a nutritious mulch. Broad-leaved dock (Rumex obtusifolius) is relatively high in phosphate and potassium levels in the leaves, and is particularly high in magnesium.
In this video, herbalist Frank Cook talks about the usefulness of nettles as food and medicine (there are videos about docks from the same source). In the background is Agroforestry Research Trust‘s Martin Crawford, the creator of the forest garden behind Schumacher College in Dartington, Devon, which is where the video is filmed. 15 years ago this woodland was pasture.
Nettles also make a fabric that’s stronger than cotton, finer than hemp, and is naturally fire retardant. Finally a use for the old weaving loom I have sitting in the attic! It should make a perfect complement for all that hand-knitted yoghurt …