The stinging nettle (Urtica diocia) is a notorious and much maligned plant often found growing wild in Europe, Asia, North Africa and North America. It's painful and irritating sting when touched or brushed by anyone passing is a common problem with any outdoor activity. The defensive hairs of the plant inject histamine and other irritant chemicals into the skin causing inflammation and irritation. A brush with a nettle is often an particularly unpleasant experience.

However, to dismiss this abundant plant as a simple pest is to do it a great disservice. If you can get past the defensive mechanism, this humble plant in fact has many positive uses. The secret with nettles is that once cooked, soaked and dried they lose their stinging properties.

Generally, pick nettles where you believe that pesticides or other chemicals are unlikely to have been sprayed. Using gloves, pick the top 6 inches of the plant, below the flowers. As a general rule younger plants have a better flavour. The nettles can then either be soaked in hot water or hung to dry in order to lose their sting. So, what to do now with your picked nettles?

1) Nettles as food.

Nettles contain Vitamins A, B, C, D and K and are also rich in calcium, iron, magnesium, chromium, potassium, and zinc. They are also a source of carotene and protein. In fact, historically nettles have been used to treat scurvy due to their high content of Vitamin C. The simplest way to incorporate nettles into your diet is in nettle tea. Simply wash the nettles and then leave them to dry out. Crush the dried nettles and add a teaspoon of the crushed nettles to a mug of boiling water, perhaps along with a cinnamon stick. Leave to brew for a minute or so and then drink.

Nettles can also form part of a main meal, in much the same way that spinach is used through steaming or frying in garlic or forming part of a soup. Infusing the nettles in vinegar is also a common way of releasing the valuable nutrients that this plant contains. It is not recommended however to eat the leaves raw as the stinging chemicals will remain!

2) Nettles as medicine

Whilst great care should be taken with any medical treatment and the advice of your doctor sought wherever possible, the nettle does have a number medicinal qualities. As ever though, if you are on any kind of medication, consult your doctor before using nettles – for instance the high levels of Vitamin K can interfere with some blood-thinning drugs.

Nettles are known to be a diuretic and their high iron content is of benefit to aneamics. They are also known to benefit rheumatism and arthiritis as well as skin disorders, some respiratory problems and can also prevent hair loss. Perhaps a little surprisingly, nettles also appear to be of benefit as an anti-allergy treatment, particularly for hayfever.

The health benefits of nettles can be achieved through ingestion, or for anti-inflammatory treatment, a topical nettle paste applied directly onto the skin.

3) Nettles as skin care

Nettle extracts often appear as an ingredient in anti-dandruff shampoos and are also said to increase the gloss of hair. An easy homemade alternative is to bottle some leftover nettle tea and apply it as a final rinse after washing your hair. It is also possible to use nettle vinegar as a form of shampoo. For the rest of your body, adding nettle tea to your bath water will provide all over skincare.

4) Nettles as material

The long, fibrous nature of the nettle means that have been historically used for weaving, cord and paper. It is known that Native Americans used them for embroidery and nets. A yellow dye can also be extracted from the nettle.

5) Nettles in the garden

Much like Comfrey, the composted nettle will provide high levels of nutrients to any soil. Either add them to your compost or heap or for a liquid fertilise simply place a large number of nettles into a container with a small amount of water and allow to rot down. The resulting "juice" can be collected and applied to plants as a form of liquid fertiliser.

Nettles are particularly attractive to aphids so are valuable within the garden as a sacrificial plant. Large numbers of aphids will also attract ladybirds who in turn will keep more valuable plants free of aphids also.

So the next time you feel that familiar sting when you brush past, don't curse, perhaps put the plant to a good use instead!