The Monthly Wort
The Monthly Wort will provide readers with detailed descriptions of specifically chosen herbs (aka “wort”, meaning a useful herb), splitting it into 4 categories over the span of the month. Herbal History, Medicinal Uses, Magical Uses and Growing/Harvesting. In order to get the full scope of each plant, stay tuned every week as we delve into spiritual and practical experience of Herbalism.
You’re out on the mountain, hiking blissfully through the greenery of an unbeaten path, reminiscing about the times when humans were more in tune with nature... Ouch! What was that? You brushed against an emerald clump of serrated leaves and tall stalks. It doesn’t look poisonous, so you lean in to inspect the suspect who gave you such a burning rash on your leg.
Why, it’s nettle! Can’t you tell, by all those tiny little silica needles projecting from its stem?
Urtica dioica is known as stinging nettle or nettle leaf. Not all of the plants sharing this species sting, although this particular one has a reputation for it. While that may seem like a turn off to wild foragers or people just getting into herbalism, you might find that stinging nettle is actually a cherished staple for cunningfolk. Originally a European native, this herbaceous, broadleaf perennial can now be found all around the world, growing in clumped groups (known as monoculture) and prefer places that have been upturned or disturbed, which makes them prime candidates for roadsides, construction sites and more. They strongly associate with human habitation in general, in places where human and animal waste have created elevated levels of phosphate and nitrogen, which are harmonious elements for the stinging nettle to thrive.
Honestly, nettles remind me a bit of the nomadic or homeless clusters you find in metropolises, surviving in group dynamics in places otherwise thought impossible to live. They’re tenacious and often mistaken as a “noxious weed” (terribly mislabeled, if you ask me), no doubt because of the bristly hairs along the stems and undersides of the leaves that can irritate the skin and cause rashes. Well, as you might find out in this blog, those little bristles come in handy.
To Name a Nettle
The etymology of stinging nettle is pretty apparent in the name, even though only five out of the six subspecies have stinging hairs called trichomes. ‘Nettle’ itself is an Indo-European root, ned, which means “bind” or “tie”. This would have to do with the use of nettles in the production of textiles. Urtica, the genus name, comes from the root meaning “burn” – again, that’s pretty self-explanatory. Dioica, on the other hand, is from the Greek language, meaning “two houses”, which is in reference to the fact that stinging nettle plants are both male and female. This is a unique quality among plants, where – for nettle – female plants will grow in dense clusters apart from the male plants outside of that, which only grow stamens. Although I won’t cover it until The Monthly Wort: Stinging Nettle (Part 3), I absolutely believe there is deep magic somewhere in the nature of this plant’s multiple sexes.
This plant has a long history of use, starting as a food/drink, textile and medicine to many ancient societies. From its aerial parts to its roots, it has been used as a source of vitamin A and C, potassium, manganese, calcium and iron, to relieve symptoms of arthritis, gout and bleeding wounds, and even as a hair conditioner for those struggling with dandruff.
Whipping with nettles, huh? Sounds like medieval torture. However, this inflammatory effect caused by the needles literally impaling the skin puts histamine, serotonin and choline right into the area. For issues like arthritis, the nettle is purposefully applied to give a counterirritant effect with can override musculoskeletal pain. If you didn’t mean to get stung, there are plenty of anti-itch creams with the antihistamines you need to settle the dermatitis. On a vastly more interesting note, there is a natural folk remedy that uses the sap released from dock leaves to ease the nettle sting. Docks usually grow in the same environments as their apparent stinging enemy, creating a relieving symbiosis for the unwary traveler to take advantage of.
Nettles That Wax Poetic
The popularity of such a wide-growing plant also made it into the poetry books. Shakespeare quotes “out of this nettle, danger, we pluck this flower, safety” in Henry IV, part 1, is a reference to how the word “nettled” came about as describing something irritating, much like stinging nettles needles. Aesop’s fable The Boy and the Nettle inspired Seán O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock, where one of the character quotes, “Gently touch a nettle and it’ll sting you for your pains/Grasp it as a lad of mettle and soft as silk remains”. As some suggest, this may be a reference to the fact that the chances of being stung by a nettle are greater if you brush against it, rather than grabbing it firmly and crushing the hairs down.
Like Spicy? Try Stinging Nettle
Nettle is also a favorite for cooks. It can be found in pesto, soup and polenta recipes. Its flavor has been compared to a mix of spinach and cucumber when cooked (and you definitely want to cook them – it’s the only way to avoid the needles when consuming them). In fact, the soup recipe is possibly the most popular form of eating it for places like Eastern Europe, Scandinavia, Iran and Ireland. The eating of nettle stew dates back to the Bronze Age of Britain, nearly 3,000 years ago! The young buds are picked in spring and early summer and made into a wide array of different versions. Here’s a very simple and delicious one that I found: NETTLE & POTATO SOUP.
There is also an annual World Nettle Eating Championship in the UK where competitors try to eat as much of the fresh leaf as possible in a limited time. Wow, I would not want to be that winner.
Nettles: Rough Around the Collar
As contradictory as it sounds, nettle was also used to make bast fibre for clothes. Yikes, that’s a prickly sweater. Of course, I’m kidding. Although it is a rough fibre, the pokey hairs are done away with while it goes through the retting processed. It’s a surprisingly strong material and grows without the help of pesticides, unlike other short fibres like cotton. It makes yarn, rope, baskets, paper, textiles and more! I feel like I myself am just scratching the surface of how awesome this plant is for weaving! If you are also interested in how to get creative with nettle, I have found some sources:
That’s it for now, guys. Join me next week to talk about how stinging nettle really zings its way to the top of the herbalist must have list. Also, let me know if any of you have tried out some of these awesome nettle crafts!