“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 species of linen.”
I remember once as a small kiddy, running down a big grassy bank so fast that my head overtook my legs and I eventually fell to the floor, one of my hands went down to break my fall and landed in a patch of Nettle…I remember the searing pain which eventually turned to a dull painfull throb, like my hand was 100 times its normal size and then followed the red welts all over the skin surface, like small red raised blotches, so called ‘urticaria’ from Nettle’s latin name(Urtica dioica) ….war wounds from my encounter with Nettle, an encounter in which I came off far worse!!
I suspect my tale isn’t too dissimilar to many and because of its nasty bite; Nettle is perhaps one of the first herbs we learn to identify…and avoid. Approached with respect however, the ‘Common’ or ‘Stinging’ Nettle can be a powerful ally to the Witch!
Growth & Cultivation
I’m pretty sure most people can identify nettles by both appearance and touch. Culpepper says that Nettles can be identified “by feeling, in the darkest night.” A single Nettle plant can be a tall lanky creature, growing anywhere over 18 inches tall (this year they have grown particularly tall here in Kent). Although unrelated Nettle looks a lot like Lemon Balm (Mellissa) although the Nettle’s leaves are greener and hairier (it’s the hairs that sting!) and obviously bigger. Nettles tend to grow in great swathes along the edge of hedgerows or big clumps here and there and maybe it’s just me but in late spring when the Nettles and Cow Parsley are at their peak and the old dirt tracks are lined and almost covered by thousands of frothy flower heads and acid green growth…well…nothing compares! Do not however confuse Stinging Nettles with Dead Nettles (Lamium Sp.) they look similar except one stings (obviously) and they are actually completely different plants despite how almost identical they can appear!
The Stinging Nettle is a herbaceous perennial with rhizomes beneath the soil surface and the name ‘dioica’ comes from the Greek word for ‘two houses’ or ‘two families’ because the stinging nettle, unlike others has exclusively male and female flowers. The flowers on most plants including other nettle species will have both stigma and stamen; a stinging nettle plant however will often have female flowers and separate male flowers growing in long stringy clusters from the leaf nodes (where the leaf meets the stem)
Some people may be fortunate enough to have a large enough garden to devote a little plot to nettles, if so I would highly recommend it as the plants are a great resource for wildlife, especially Butterflies who lay their eggs upon the leaves ready for the caterpillars to devour. Grow them somewhere out of sight if needs be…up by the compost bin or water butt and they will keep the butterflies happy and provide a great source of Nitrogen for the compost Bin…and useful herb material for you! You can also make a nettle tea (much like Comfrey) with Nettles which can be diluted and used as a Nitrogen rich plant food.
You can purchase Nettle seed from Nicky’s Nursery (my favourite seed supplier) although I have to say I have never tried growing nettles from seed myself because, quite frankly…I haven’t the space and there is ample enough for my uses in the wild!
Nettle likes a moist, temperate environment and is abundant across the Northernmost Hemisphere (Northern Europe, North America and parts of Asia) and although I see it growing out in more exposed areas here in the UK, I consider Nettles to be more shady or woodland dwellers growing especially on the edge of woods and hedgerows guarding the inhabitants like an almighty stinging fortress and bordering paths and track ways.
Two words….Nettle Soup! You will either love it or hate it! This is the recipe I have used in the past. Personally I’m not a fan, I think Nettle Soup is an acquired taste but everyone should at least try it!
Being determined however I won’t be put off using this excellent (and free!) source of nutritious early fresh greens. I recently tried Cornish Yarg, a cheese matured in Nettle leaves. Last year I made up my own recipe for Nettle and Ricotta Ravioli with Sage Butter and it was delicious. I pretty much followed a recipe for Spinach and Ricotta Ravioli and substituted about half the Spinach for Nettle and it wasn’t half bad. I also found a recipe for Spinach and Mushroom Lasagne and did the same. Also try substituting Wild Garlic in to some of these recipes…after all what grows together goes together!
Whilst on that note of things which grow together, many people will know that Dock leaves are the famous antidote to Nettle Stings hence the reason they grow close to each other (or perhaps it’s the other way round?)…pluck a dock leaf, rub it on the sting whilst chanting the traditional verse:
“Dock in, Nettle out
Dock rub Nettle out,”
(I’m sure this principle of things growing near each other (i.e. an antidote near the poison) has a name and its bugging me so if anyone knows PLEASE shout!)
Very high on my ‘to do’ list is Nettle Beer which is an Old country beverage…being more of a Wine and Mead brewer I am yet to have a go at beer but I hear Nettle Beer is quite quaffable! There is a recipe in Nigel Pearson’s book ‘Treading the Mill’ and another ‘A Modern Herbal’ery high on my to do list is Nettle Beer which is an Oldast) Nettle cloth is stronger than Linen! rowth which appears around MA
Apparently an average serving of Nettles can provide as much as 20% of your daily Iron requirements and as much as 45% of your daily calcium. In addition Nettles are high in Vitamins A, D and K. Vitamin A (retinol) is necessary for a healthy immune system. Vitamin K is important factor in blood clotting and Vitamin D helps absorb calcium and keep bones strong, we can produce Vitamin D when exposed to sunlight…not something abundant in late winter / early spring! Isn’t it amazing how nature provides us with all these requirements right at the time we need them most…when the worst of winter has past, when we begin to ramp up towards the spring, when the pantry is bare and the kitchen garden spent…along comes the humble nettle ready to provide all that goodness when little else is around!!
When harvesting nettles, especially for eating go for the young shoots, the light, acid green top growth which appears between March and April (depending where you are), it’s the most tender and nutritious. Any later and the plants become tough and stringy and not at all pleasant to eat! Just remember to wear gloves!
Tough and stringy is however good for one thing….spinning into fibres! Nettle was used for a long time before Linen became popular as a fibre for clothing and rope and nettles were also used as a dye stuff, a bit of a one stop shop!!! According to the Poet Thomas Campbell (or his Mother at least, quoted above) Nettle cloth is stronger than Linen but I have no idea how one would even go about spinning a skein of Nettle fibre (I have enough trouble with wool!) so answers on the back of a postcard! Maybe I’ll add it to the ever growing ‘to do’ list.
I gather Nettles in the spring and dry them for use throughout the rest of the year. My main application is as Nettle tea and, as I find the taste of Nettle tea quite subtle, I think it blends pretty well with other herbs such as Mint, Peppermint, Fennel, Lemon Balm, Dandelion and so on, although its fine on its own too!
Nettles make a superb tonic for the blood and urinary tract, again, made from the young fresh shoots (or dried herb) the tea or tincture is perfect for the start of spring as a means to detox the system after a heavy, indulgent winter. I use Rosehips, Nettle, Cleavers, Hawthorn and Echinacea A LOT in the early spring.
Mrs Grieve in her ‘Modern Herbal’ has some really fascinating bits of lore surrounding the Nettle which I would encourage anyone interested to read! What is noteworthy is her claim that the formic acid (the stuff which makes the stingy bits sting and is also found in stinging insects) is what makes nettle so useful medicinally…maybe there is some truth in the old saying “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”
To that effect, I have read that the Romans used Nettle to warm themselves up by lashing themselves with the fresh plants across their backs and limbs!!! I can see how that would distract from being cold, and I can imagine the blood vessels would constrict pretty considerably however all I can say is…thank God for central heating!! The macerated oil had the same effect and old Roman remedy says to take nettle “seethe them in oil, smear and rub all thy body therewith; the cold will depart away” much easier on us less hardy types!
Ain’t no doubt about it, Nettles are Martian (ruled by Mars). They are firey, defensive, prickly, repellent, acidic and all things in between!! That however doesn’t mean bad, negative or sinister…remember Nettles play a vital role in the Ecosystem, we only call them stinging nettles because they sting us…to Butterflies they are nursery and to their offspring they are pantry!
Nettles, just like war-like Mars are often maligned considered nothing more than invasive, good for nothing, ugly and hurtful. Of course this all depends which side of the war you are on!! With Mars on your side he is a powerful protector, defender and guardian, Piss him off… well he, just like the Scorpios under his governance, has a hefty sting in his tail…as do Nettles if not approached with respect and caution.
Treading the Mill by Nigel Pearson