Nettles and weeds are seen as horticultural pests but green fingers can reap numerous benefits from them
UNRULY and unsightly, they are the bane of keen gardeners' lives for their irritating habit of popping up with frustrating regularity just where they are least wanted.
Cultivated flower beds become choked, weeds poke out between paving slabs and then wave their jaggy leaves in mockery at the strongest chemical solution that B&Q can legally sell.
Until now, a patch of nettles at the bottom of the garden or a dandelion invasion on the lawn were as welcome as next door's cat using your prize rose patch for a litter tray.
And as for the creeping nuisance created by a patch of chickweed, a plant that can survive, flower and seed even under snow, only death by rake, shovel, blood and sweat was good enough.
All of which has Roslin Glen-based medical herbalist and horticulturist Julie Cook in despair. Weeds, she insists, are among our best friends, to be nurtured, harvested and then chewed on or swilled in a warming drink to cure aches, pains and ailments.
Hard to believe, perhaps, but for Julia there is little more delightful than a spot of vigorous weeding followed by picking over her spoils of dandelions, nettles, chickweed and plantain and turning it into a remedy, lotion or even, indeed, dinner.
"Weeds are wonderful," she announces. "In fact, the weeds we love to hate are often the most beneficial to us.
"Around 50 to 75 per cent of the drugs are plant derived or inspired by plant medicine from the past. And 80 per cent of the global population still use herbal medicine as their primary healthcare, not because they are poor countries, but because they prefer them.
"Even the weeds that grow in our gardens and hedgerows that we all can identify, can do amazing things," she adds. "Nettles, for instance, they're brilliant!"
Not so brilliant if you happen to fall over in them, but according to Julia, who tomorrow will lead the first of a short series of walks through central Edinburgh pointing out the benefits of the humble weeds that crowd our kerbs, wasteground and gardens, nettles are the very solution for that other curse of the gardener – hay fever.
"You do have to be careful though," she warns. "Wash what you pick and don't harvest from the side of roads. And remember nothing is benign, take too much and it can be harmful."
So don't simply reach for the weedkiller to tackle your overgrown, weed-choked garden beds. Learn how pesky plants could be good for your health.
Brace yourself, for the UK is in the grip of an invasion from the yellow perils. Wet weather followed by sunny conditions has triggered an unusually high number.
"It's not all bad," says herbalist Julia Cook. "For dandelions are a garden gem when it comes to curing all manner of ills – and they're even tasty.
"The leaves have a slight bitter taste," she says. "People pay a fortune for rocket in their salad – but you could eat dandelion leaves.
"The leaves are mineral rich, high in potassium and vitamins A, B, C and D. They are very good for the bowel."
Herbalists use the leaf as the basis for healing tinctures to help lower high blood pressure. Even the root has benefits for treating digestive problems.
They're a pain in the grass for many gardeners, but according to Julia, "Nettles are brilliant".
"Nettles used to be used to make beer, medicines, rope, cloth, paper and as screen in gardens," she says. "But the best revenge is to just eat them. They are rich in vitamin C and iron. I make pesto using nettles, wild garlic leaves, dandelion, chickweed and plantain. Or blanche nettles, put them in a pastry case with eggs, cream, nutmeg, wild garlic and seasoning for a lovely tart." She recommends a thick pair of gloves to harvest the fresh young tips of nettles which can help combat hay fever and other allergies.
"Drink it in a tincture or tea combined with elderflower or chamomile which are also anti-histamine," she says.
These are broad leafed weeds that usually have long stems with seeds, explains Julia. "These are ideal for stings and bites – much better than dock leaves for nettle stings."
She usually uses ribwort variety which can be applied to wounds to reduce inflammation.
"It's mineral rich in potassium, magnesium and phosphorus," she adds. "Like nettles, it's an anti-histamine, so it's good for hay fever and allergies."
Julia suggests herbal tea or tincture to help combat bronchitis or hot, dry coughs.
Or make a poultice with ground up leaves and apply to an area of heat or swelling such as varicose veins.
Even the seeds are useful – they provide dietary fibre which can stimulate the bowels.
It's a weed with a reputation for spreading fast and its shallow roots make it one of the easier weeds to tackle. But don't throw it away, because it can provide a wealth of uses, says Julia.
"It's a beautiful plant, a fragile little weed with lots of vitamins and minerals. You can just add it to salads when it's nice and young – it's delicious. Use it topically for soothing and cooling the skin."
She suggests a healing salve made with calendula, chickweed and plantain for soothing skin.
Julia Cook is a medical herbalist and horticulturalist who runs Healing Tree, a clinic and apothecary above Roslin Glen. Tel: 0131-440 4303