Here is a herb that needs no description. No doubt we all got stung by nettles as children and learnt to rub dock leaves onto the burning rash, and maybe that was our first experience of a plant remedy and a plant poison. The sting of the nettle commands respect and this is a plant for which reverence is due, so big a role it has played in our history. It is truly a plant of the ancestors, which has been used as an essential food, a powerful medicine and a source of fibre that has been made into rope, fishing nets and clothing, for literally thousands of years.
Nettles’ latin name is Urtica, from uro, I burn. This refers to the burning sensation and welts produced from contact with the tiny hairs on the leaves and stalks that break open and release formic acid and histamine. These quickly deteriorate when the plant is picked, cooked or dried.
Though the sting of nettles is unpleasant, it has a powerful therapeutic effect. Roman soldiers were said to have beat themselves with nettles to alleviate the aching of rheumatic joints accrued from living in the cold and damp of Britain. This practice persists as a folk and Romany tradition, the advice being to plunge arthritic joints into fresh nettles several times each spring. The stinging is also said to cure loss of nerve sensation in paralyzed limbs.
Nettles are an ideal spring tonic. The young leaves are nutrient rich, containing high levels of protein and iron, vitamins A and C, calcium, magnesium and many trace elements. They can be steamed and eaten as a vegetable, added to soups and other recipes, juiced, made into tisanes or brewed as a herbal beer. They would have been an essential spring food for our ancestors preventing or curing scurvy, being one of the first available plant sources of vitamin C. Because of their dense concentration of minerals and amino acids, Nettles help to build healthy bones, hair, skin, and teeth, as well as being an excellent tonic for pregnant, lactating, and menopausal women. Nettles are also an important food source for hens, pigs, cows and horses. Pick and use the young nettle tops up until summer solstice only, as after this time the chemical composition of the plant changes.
If you have nettles in your garden, be thankful, for not only do you have this great food source in spring, but you also have a compost activator, a fertilizer and an insecticide. Soak cut nettles in a bucketful of water for three weeks, strain and dilute for a rich foliar feed or a spray for aphids, mildew and other pests. The bio-dynamic gardening method uses a humus made from nettles to stimulate fermentation in compost or manure heaps. Planting nettles as companion plants is said to enhance the volatile oil content of aromatic medicinal herbs.
As a medicine, nettles are much used by herbalists, and the range of conditions for which they are used is extensive. The young leaves, roots and seeds are all used. Culpeper described Nettle as being hot and dry, under the dominion of Mars, and he recommended its use in spring to remove the phlegmatic superfluities left in the body by the coldness and moisture of winter. It opens the lungs, removing mucus and relieving bronchitis and pleurisy. Nettle also works on the kidneys, removing stones, gravel and uric acid, high levels of which cause gout, arthritis and rheumatism. This deep cleansing power also extends to the skin and nettle is an invaluable herb for the treatment of eczema, acne, urticaria and other itchy hot skin conditions. In hayfever and asthma, Nettle reduces the inflammatory allergic response.
The tannin contained in the plant makes Nettle a strong astringent and a wonderful remedy for internal and external bleeding, diarrhoea and enteritis.
Combined with Yarrow, as a tea, I have found it invaluable for stemming heavy menstruation or blood loss after pregnancy, with the added benefit of replacing lost iron and preventing anaemia. It is an important herb for women of all ages. For men, the root has been found helpful in prostate problems.
Emotionally, Nettle helps us connect with our fire energy, restoring our will and resilience and moving out of resignation, apathy or emotional overwhelm.
Nettle nurtures, nourishes, cleanses and heals and is a wonderful example of Hippocrates dictum: let food be your medicine and medicine your food.
So, put your gloves on and get out there and pick some Nettles this spring.