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The Global Garden: Finding uses for stinging nettle

Stinging nettle detailStinging nettle was brought here by Europeans who valued its hardiness, but now it's considered an invasive urban pest. Once established it spreads quickly -- like its cousin, mint -- and can reach 6 feet fast. Gardena grower Peter Lee used to sell seedlings at the Hollywood Farmer’s Market but has given up.

“I thrashed myself putting them in pots and nobody wanted it,” he said. “Although those who want it, really want it.”

For a select group of foragers, stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) is a diamond in the rough. It can be eaten like spinach, used as a tea or added to a potato-cream soup.  Cooks prefer the smallest new shoots that come up in spring, only a few inches high, resembling raspberry leaves.

Older plants have their uses too. Bio-dynamic gardeners use the mature plants to make a foul-smelling tea that is steeped for a couple of weeks and then used as an organic bug spray or powdery mildew remedy.

Stinging nettle plantGardener Mauricio Bolanos at the Moothart Collingnon Community Garden, also known as the Francis Avenue garden, has no trouble handling the 6-year-old plant there.

“If you are afraid of it it will sting you more," Bolanos said. "If you aren’t afraid, nothing will happen.”

The variety at Francis Avenue is known as chichicastle in Nahuatl, the language of indigenous people in Central Mexico. It has heart-shaped leaves and is used by some as an immune system booster, said Tanya Torres, community organizer of the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust, which oversees the garden. Like Northern and Eastern Europeans, Oaxacans have used nettle topically, against the skin, often on children.

“During the spring parents take this and beat you with it,” Torres said with a laugh. “I’m originally from Veracruz, and we had it there. It’s supposed to make you grow. It’s also used for depression."

Nettle may be valued in some cultures, but it's a tough sell in urban L.A. Worldwide Exotics in Lakeview Terrace is one of few nurseries that has the plants for sale.

RELATED:

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Community gardens: A Times series

Southern California spring garden tours

-- Jeff Spurrier

Photos: Ann Summa

 
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