By Eowyn OR
It seems they lurk everywhere (if rarely in BC!): by roadsides, railway lines, in ditches, on rubbish tips! For many, they comprise a major division of an army of rebellious weeds that constantly threatens an otherwise perfect garden with imminent siege. And worse still, a brush with the ubiquitous nettle seems as a fiery bite from an evil green dragon!
As for many folk, my early childhood introduction to the stinging nettle’s power was definitely an unfriendly handshake. My “friend” pushed me into the embrace of a lively patch of these alien looking triffids whilst playing down by the local brook one day. Immediately, my hands prickled and burned from the expressed fluid and angry red welts covered my palms. I have to say, misinformation that “spiders would break out of the red lumps” coupled with the pain certainly wrought a few tears: such is the cruelty of childhood peers! Yet ironically, the stinging nettle’s overt ferocity belies a very benevolent spirit; for in reality, stinging nettle is little short of being a wonder drug!
The nettle tribe Urticaceae grows in most places besides the Arctic, Antarctic and South Africa. In the British Isles, three species are found: the stinging nettle Urtica dioica, the dwarf nettle Urtica urens and the Roman nettle Urtica pilulifera. Urtica derives from the Latin uro, “to burn” and of course, refers to the burning properties of the fluid contained in the plant’s stinging hairs. The dead nettle Lamium album is not a true nettle (Urtica), though the leaves are superficially similar. There are between thirty and forty five species of Urtica worldwide. Patches of nettles normally indicate the soil is nitrogen rich.
Urtica dioica is a perennial plant that grows in most places throughout the spring and summer months; they can grow up to heights of a metre or more and have dark green, heart shaped, serrated looking leaves covered by small stinging hairs; the large square stems are similarly adorned.. The green flowers dangle as catkins from the plant. Their flowers are incomplete: the male (barren) flowers have stamens only whilst the female (fertile) flowers have only pistil or seed-producing organs, which grow along yellow rhizomes. The male and female catkins usually- though not always- grow on different plants: the Latin name dioica means “two houses”.
Urtica urens is a smaller annual nettle that grows to fifty centimetres in height with both male and female flowers on the same plant. It has the mildest sting of the three British species.
Urtica pilulifera (the Roman nettle), is also an annual and grows to about a metre high with flowers in small clusters of compact globular heads; it is the most venomous of the three, quite rare and grows mainly by the sea in the east of England. Allegedly, it was introduced by the Romans and according to the antiquary Camden in his work entitled “Britannica,” he states:
“The soldiers brought some of the nettle seed with them and sowed it there for their use to rub and chafe their limbs, when through extreme cold they should be stiff and benumbed, having been told that the climate in Britain was so cold, that it was not to be endured.”(2)
Each stinging hair clothing the plant is a very sharp, hollow, polished spine, arising from a swollen base. This base is comprised of small, venom-containing cells, which, in response to pressure, release the venom containing bicarbonate of ammonia and formic acid. It also releases the chemicals histamine, which irritate the skin, acetylcholine, which causes the burning sensation, and serotonin, which causes the other two chemicals to react. Ironically, just as anti-venom is produced from snake venom, the juice of nettle is an antidote for its own sting that will bring instant relief. However, better known is the fact that the juice of the dock Rumex is traditionally used to reduce the pain of the nettle sting: both are often found growing within the same vicinity. An old rhyme records this ancient wisdom thus:
“Nettle in, dock out.
Dock rub nettle out!”(3)
Folklore abounds about stinging nettles. In “The Wild Swans” by Hans Christian Anderson, the princess Elissa is guided by the queen of the fairies to gather nettles from graveyards without uttering a word. As she gathers them, she has to tread them with her bare feet; she then knits the nettles up into coats that will rescue her brothers from the swan form bestowed upon them by an evil queen. In Odinic mythology, nettles are sometimes associated with Thor and it is believed that burning nettles on a fire will afford protection against lightening. In one story, Loki spun fishing nets from nettles.
In the recorded 10th century “Anglo Saxon Nine Herbs Charm,” stinging nettle was named “Stiðe,” “Wergulu” or “Stithe” (depending upon the author of the secondary source). Used by Odin, the charm afforded protection against the “flying venom,” believed to be one of four sources of disease in Teutonic aetiology. Anglo Saxons also used purple dead-nettle in butter-based eyesalves and “holy salves” against disease; red nettle was used in salves for rashes or “elf-shot.”
Grimm noted that in Holland, on the “Zaterdag before Pentecost,” young boys went out early in the morning to gather bunches of nettles and tied them to the doors of village houses. Speculation is that it was a surviving heathen fertility custom and/or perhaps an ancient remnant of flogging where birch branches were used likewise in saunas to bring blood to the skin’s surface. Certainly, there was a practise known as “urtication:” nettles were applied to the skin to induce inflammation as a folk remedy for the relief of rheumatism.
The Buddhist saint and yogi, Milarepa, is said to have eaten nothing but nettles and to have turned green as a result; hence, many of his images are constructed from green jade. Legend has it that after his father’s death, Milarepa’s aunt and uncle stole the family wealth so that he, his sister and mother were forced to live in poverty. At his mother’s insistence, Milarepa learned the arts of black magic so he could gain revenge upon his relatives. On the first attempt, he sent deities to storm a wedding party, which killed thirty five family members; but his aunt and uncle escaped with their lives. So in a second attempt, he conjured a crop destroying rainstorm. Racked by guilt and concern about his bad karma, Milarepa sought to change it by seeking out the Lama Marpa, who instructed him to meditate in a cave. This he did for many years, subsisting entirely on nettles and eventually, he gained enlightenment. It is said that when his bowl broke, the likeness of it remained intact from the residue of all the nettles he had cooked therein!
The name “nettle” derives from the Anglo Saxon word Notel, which apparently derives from Noedl meaning a needle: the use of nettle thread and yarn by Germanic and Scandinavian nations pre-dates the general introduction of flax. Net is the passive principle of ne, a verb commonly used by our Indo-European ancestors in the sense of “spin and sew” (from the Latin nere, German na-hen and Sanskrit nah- bind). Flax and hemp bear southern names and were introduced into the north to replace the use of nettles as fibre. Indeed, nettles were originally used for making cloth of all grades from fine to coarse- sailcloth, sacking, cordage etc. Nettle fibre was still being used in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Scotland for household napery. The poet Campbell believed nettle deserved much more attention than it received at the time in England; he wrote:
“In Scotland, I have eaten nettles, I have slept in nettle sheets, and I have dined off a nettle tablecloth. The young and tender nettle is an excellent potherb. The stalks of the old nettle are as good as flax for making cloth. I have heard my mother say that she thought nettle cloth more durable than any other linen.”(4)
The greatest objection for nettle’s mass production for fibre was the necessity to grow it on rich, deep soil; otherwise a short, coarse fibre resulted and in this sense, flax was more economically viable. However, in World War 1, the use of nettle fibre regained ascendancy: Germany and Austria ran short of cotton so nettle fibre was used in many articles of army clothing. In the textile industry, practical tests affirmed that goods woven from nettle fibre were equal to those woven from cotton. Microscopic examination revealed nettle fibre to have a glass-like surface (unlike the serrated surface of wool fibre). Thus, nettle’s future as an important textile seemed assured on several fronts. By 1917, millions of hectares of nettles were cultivated in Germany, fulfilling approximately 18% of Germany’s cotton requirements; nettle’s by-products also substituted for indispensable articles such as sugar, starch, protein and ethyl alcohol. During the second World War, nettle leaves provided the green dye for military uniforms; the roots make a wonderful yellow dye, which Russian peasants use to dye eggs on Maundy Thursday. In terms of mass textile production, it seems difficulties were encountered in the separation of fibres. More recently, great progress has been made such that some fifty processes have now been patented for the task. With the current trend towards environmental awareness, a few companies exist that sell clothing made from nettle fibre.(5) Allegedly, it is as comfortable as silk to wear. Today, the chlorophyll of nettle is used as a green dye and is listed by the European Community as the food colourant E140.
In the language of flowers- a charming Victorian invention used especially by lovers to send coded messages to each other- nettles signified “cruelty” or “slander.” In Shakespeare’s King Lear, Act IV, Cordelia is apparently defaming the symbol of defamation when she lumps nettles with:
“cuckoo flow’rs, darnel, and all the idle weeds that grow in our sustaining corn.”(6)
With regards to its medicinal properties, nettle is a veritable panacea for many ills. It contains vitamins A, B1 (thiamine), B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin), B5 (panothenic acid), C, D, K, E. chlorophyll, potassium, calcium, manganese, acetycholine, serotonin sulphur, iron, selenium, magnesium, chromium and zinc. Nettles nourish and support the entire body, particularly the endocrine, immune, urinary, respiratory, and circulatory systems. Nettle root is a kidney ally and lymphatic and immune strengthener. Modern herbalists still use nettles “to bring dormant energies into action.”(7) Indeed, some midwives consider nettles a primary fertility promoter second only to red clover. It is perhaps the richest plant source of folic acid, so vital for foetal health. One cup of correctly prepared nettle infusion(8) provides 500 milligrams of calcium, iron and vitamin K, which helps prevent haemorrhage. The protein, vitamins and minerals in nettles enrich breast milk and promote lactation in mothers. Drinking an infusion of young nettle leaves in springtime has long been used in rural districts as a tonic and blood purifier and it is this same tea that is used as a cure for nettle rash. The famous herbalist Culpepper stated that nettle is:
“…an herb Mars claims dominion over. You know Mars is hot and dry, and you know as well that winter is cold and moist; then you may know as well the reason why nettle-tops eaten in the spring consume the phlegmatic superfluities in the body of man, that the coldness and moistness of winter hath left behind.”(9)
The juice of the roots or leaves of nettle mixed with honey or sugar will relieve bronchial and asthmatic conditions as will the inhaled fumes from the dried leaves; hence, nettle is also an antidote to hayfever. Nettle gently dissolves kidney stones, which are a common factor resulting from today’s unhealthy eating practices. Being chlorophyll rich (chlorophyll is only marginally different from haemoglobin in the blood), makes nettle an excellent source of iron in the event of anaemia. Nettle roots have diuretic properties and as an infusion consumed regularly, nettle works as an adaptogen, (10) rebalancing the entire system. There are few more potent “simples” than nettle for today’s stressful lifestyles since nettle feeds and nourishes the adrenal glands; when our adrenals are depleted by stressors such as unhealthy diets, pollutants, stressful lifestyles etc, thyroid issues often ensue and so our entire metabolism becomes sluggish. Low thyroid activity is a common factor in today’s epidemic of obese westerners. Nettle infusions increase our resilience to stress of all kinds and gently nourish the whole glandular system. In old herbals, ingested seeds were recommended for the stings and bites of venomous creatures and mad dogs, and as an antidote to poisoning by hemlock, henbane and nightshade.
A curious superstition was that fever could be dispelled by plucking a nettle up by the roots whilst reciting the names of the sick person and also his/her parents. In April 1926, the daily press affirmed the case of a man with diabetes who (after a two day fast), imbibed the brew of nettles thereby reducing his weight by six stone in three days: his diabetes also vastly improved! (11) Whilst the report is obviously a tad outlandish, nettle is nonetheless helpful for weightloss: it mobilises testosterone stored in the body whilst its ability to isotonically rebalance body fluids and encourage effective excretion via the kidneys, liver and gall bladder means that over time- and with proper fasting and diet- nettle can be a powerful ally in the correction of diabetic states. Meanwhile, the Germans have long been employing nettle root as a treatment in prostate cancer. Clinical trials from around the world have proved nettle to be an effective treatment for prostrate cancer, lower incidence of urinary tract infections and osteoarthritic conditions. Meanwhile, the homeopathic tincture Urtica is frequently successful in treating rheumatic gout, nettlerash, chicken pox and externally for bruises.
Nettle Pudding and nettle beer were favourite folk remedies, the latter being used for gouty or rheumatic pains whilst also being considered a pleasant ginger beer-like drink. Many combinations of herbs were used for the beer. Here is a recipe for the nettle pudding and one version of nettle beer respectively:(12)
Nettle Pudding :1 gallon of young nettle tops, washed
(serves 6) 2 good sized leeks
2 heads of broccoli or small cabbage or brussels sprouts
1/4lb of rice.
Clean the vegetables well; chop the broccoli and leeks and mix with the nettles. Put the combination in a muslin bag alternately with the rice and tie tightly. Boil in salted water, long enough to cook the vegetables. Serve with gravy or melted butter.
Nettle Beer: 1 good pailful of washed, young nettle leaves
3-4 large handfuls of dandelion
3-4 large handfuls of clivers (goosegrass)
2oz bruised, whole ginger
2 gallons of cold water
Boil the ingredients gently in the water for 40 minutes. Strain and stir in 1 teacupful of brown sugar. When lukewarm, place on the top of a slice of toasted bread, spread with 1oz of compressed yeast (stirred until liquid with 1 teaspoon of sugar). Keep fairly warm for 6-7 hours then remove the scum and add 1 tablespoon of cream of tarter. Bottle and tie the corks securely.
An excellent hair tonic can be prepared by simmering young nettles in water or a combination of water and vinegar for two hours, straining and then bottling the cold liquid. By saturating the scalp and combing it through the hair, this tonic helps prevent balding, thinning hair and renders it soft and glossy whilst stimulating the hair follicles.
Nettles were used as a substitute for fodder during the war: underweight horses suffering from digestive ailments benefitted from nettle leaves in their rations. Dried, powdered nettle fed to poultry increases both weight and egg production and this effect seems to extend to most fowl and also pigs.
Pfeiffer lists stinging nettle as one of the dynamic plants “which influence their surroundings in a specific way so that other plants change their properties or that a soil changes its character.” Under experimental conditions, nettle notably increased the oil composition of peppermint plants and the richness of humus after their introduction into existing rows of the aromatic plants.(13) Biodynamic cultivators stimulate plant growth and enliven compost and manure heaps with “activated ferments” of select plants amongst which is stinging nettle. Young nettles are collected, allowed to slightly fade, then buried in the ground. They are isolated from the soil with a layer of peat moss above and below and must remain buried for one winter and one summer. They are then added in small amounts to the compost pile, Activated nettles affect silica processes within their sphere of influence. Nettles make a natural organic fertiliser rich in nitrogen and potassium. Soak 1kg of nettle leaves in 5 litres of water; strain the leaves (add the leaves to the compost heap) and use the remaining liquid as a plant feed or a pesticide against aphids and blackfly. Nettle leaves added to the compost heap operate as an activator, speeding up the decomposition of organic materials.
Ecologically speaking, nettles are very important. They are home to many types of butterfly and moth; both lay their eggs on the nettles to feed their caterpillars. Various types of lice and weevil live exclusively in nettle patches. Aphids like nettles: ants herd them to feed from the nectar they produce. Many different types of bird feed from nettle seeds and consume the insects living on the plant.
Our ancestors relied upon plants to meet most of their basic needs and worked with them intimately throughout the plants’ entire lifecycle. Stinging nettles are like a green goddess in our midst whose nature is that of the paradoxical serpent of mythology- ferocious yet a healer when treated correctly. Since Neolithic times, nettle has been vital for food and clothing, making her an unacknowledged and vital force of evolution within our folk’s history. In “The Wisdom of Wyrd,” (14) Brian Bates speaks of the way in which our ancestors once regarded plants as special entities unto themselves and not merely “plant material” as we do today. Plants have a rhythm and movement that depends upon moon cycles, seasons, diurnal rhythms and many other more subtle cyclical events. Biodynamic agriculture works with these rhythms and there is little doubt that the potency of herbal material is more powerful as a result, meaning less actual herb is needed. At one time, plants were thus harvested under specific conditions, sometimes using complex rituals in accordance with “the spirit” of the plant. This of course, was especially so for shamanic ritual in which the shaman descended into the spirit world to work with the plant spirit on its own terms bringing back cures for ailing members of the community. Now, in these troubled times, the very genetics of plants are being altered by monsters such as Monsanto, whilst a corrupt pharmaceutical industry replaces the genuine services of a shaman or wise-woman to heal us with natural medicines. It is more imperative than ever that our folk seek to reclaim this forgotten herbal wisdom. So the next time you are greeted by a patch of nettles, utter not the reflexive, unconscious curse on “weeds” (what is a “weed” anyway?); rather, consciously revel in the vital green display that swathes the ground before you and recall the blessing they were- and are- to our folk. Then raise a mighty hael and welcome to the green goddess spirit of our sacred and beloved Mother Jorth, (carefully!) take a few young nettle leaves and go make yourself a brew of vivifying green nettle tea to begin your day!
Hael the Landspirits and Landwights!
Hael our Holy Mother Jorth!
1.Edward Thomas (1878-1917)
Edward Thomas was of Welsh lineage, but was born in London as Philip Edward Thomas. He is one of the most famous English poets of World War I. Educated at Battersea Grammar School, St. Paul’s School and Oxford’s Lincoln College, he married as an undergraduate, and worked as a journalist before becoming a poet.
2. Grieve, Mrs M
“A Modern Herbal”
(Tiger Books International, PLC, 1998)
5 Here is a list of companies that sell nettle clothing:
8 Stinging Nettle Infusion:
1 cup (1 oz by weight) dried stinging nettle leaves
1 quart water
Boil the water. Pour over the leaves and leave to infuse for 4-10 hours or overnight. Strain into a quart sized container and store in the refrigerator. The infusion will keep for a few days. If it spoils, use it as a hair rinse or as plant water.
10 Adaptogens are natural substances that work through the adrenal glands to produce adjustments in the body to combat stress and increase resistance to stress; usually, they have no side effects.
11 Grieve, Mrs M
Ibid page 578
13 Pfeiffer, E.
Weeds and What They Tell.
Bio-Dynamic Farming and Gardening Association, Inc, 1970.
14 Bates, Brian
The Wisdom of Wyrd
(Brian Bates, 1996)