Taking the sting out of nettles for skin care
DAVID MEDCALF WENT TO RATHDANGAN IN WEST WICKLOW TO MEET UNA LAMBERT, WHO IS BUSY REVIVING THE REPUTATION OF ONE OF OUR MOST COMMON WEEDS, TAKING THE GOODNESS OF NETTLES TO CREATE HER OWN COSMETICS
UNA LAMBERT lives on the side of a picturesque hillside in West Wicklow.
A mother of five, married to builder Kevin Lambert, she lives a perfectly normal life in many respects.
The family home is perfectly suited to modern living, set in a large garden with immaculate lawns. The house is located on a small farm with a perfectly ordinary flock of commercial sheep grazing the land.
Yet Una boasts a perfectly extraordinary occupation, probably one of a kind in Wicklow, if not all of Ireland. She grows nettles. Where most gardeners view nettles as the enemy, she tends a patch of them, about 50 square metres.
She collects nettle seeds. She plants her nettles in drills. She harvests nettles.
While not even Una thinks of nettles as things of beauty, she is strongly convinced that they are much more than mere stinging weeds.
She draws on the long held belief, now backed up by scientific research, that nettles have some valuable properties.
Not only are the leaves a nutritious food for humans but they also may be used to make a very effective plant fertiliser.
And she is busy turning this most unusual crop into an essential ingredient for her range of skin care products. Yes, welcome to Neantóg. Una Lambert explains that the word means nettles in Irish, so it was the obvious choice really for her latest venture.
She is endlessly enthusiastic about her chosen plants: ’Nettles are going back to mediaeval times, a great spring tonic with healing benefits. ‘ They were used for a variety of ailments.’ She is a proud native of rural Rathdangan, where her late parents Paddy and Julia Kavanagh used to run the farm.
At 56 acres, it was not a large holding, so Paddy used to deliver the ‘Irish Press’.
As a result of his work commitments, the family was brought up in part in Dublin, coming back from the city up into the hills for weekends and summer holidays to look after the land.
In 1979, everyone moved back full time to the farm, which is in the townland of Ballinguile.
‘At ten years old, I was delighted with the move, with the freedom of the countryside,’ recalls Una, who has worked hard to remain here ever since.
She proved a most reluctant student when dispatched to the boarding school not so terribly far away in Castledermot.
Her misery was eventually recognised and she finished her secondary education at the vocational college in Hacketstown, where she was much happier.
This was followed by a stint of business studies at Carlow RTC, nowadays the institute of technology, exploring administration, law and economics.
She then headed for the United States, taking odd jobs – child care, mail shots and waitressing – in New York, living in the Bronx for a year.
‘I enjoyed it,’ she says of her time in New York, ‘ but I came home when my mother got sick and I have been here ever since.’
She returned in 1991 and married Kevin Lambert, a builder, in 1994, putting her business skills to good use in the office of the local SuperValu before son Tiernan came along.
The first born was followed by two more boys and a couple of girls – Brendan, Lorcan, Julia and Aine.
As the family grew up, their entrepreneurial mother thrashed around looking for alternative ways of supplementing their income.
For a while, they shared the farm not only with sheep but also with pigs.
Another venture allowed the children to learn about caring for flocks of hens and ducks,