pale leaf Gaia's Garden leaves




Nettle - Urtica dioica

nettleThe common Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica) is one of the first edible wild plants to emerge in the spring and can be found growing in rich soils in forest clearings, stream banks, old fields or wastelands and disturbed soil. The stem is ridged, bristly and hairy, the leaves grow opposite one another and are oval or heart shaped at the base, narrowing to a long point, with toothed edges. Tassel-like clusters of greenish flowers appear in the Summer, with male and female flowers on separate plants. The stem and leaves are notoriously covered in stiff stinging hairs, the tip of which breaks off when touched, leaving a hollow hair which injects the skin with a fluid containing irritant poison. The juice from the stem of the stinging nettle actually makes a remedy to the plants' sting - next time you're stung try breaking the stem and applying the juice to relieve the stinging sensation. Failing that you'll usually find the faithful Dock Leaf growing nearby, the leaves contain chemicals which will neutralise the sting and cool the skin.

A valuable plant for a wide range of wildlife, the stinging nettle harbours an incredible number of insects and invertebrates - some of which, like the nettle weevil, exist solely on nettles. Red admiral, small tortoiseshell, painted lady, comma and peacock butterflies are all attracted to stinging nettles, where they will lay their eggs, the resulting caterpillars having an immediate source of nutritious food. Nettle patches also tend to support over-wintering aphids, which provide an early food source for ladybirds and their larvae and lacewing larvae. The honeydew produced by aphids will also provide food for ants - and in return the ants will protect the aphids from other predators. Not surprisingly the nettle patch is a magnet for birds and other insect-eaters, whilst seed eating birds will be attracted in the late summer when the nettle produces a huge quantity of seeds. .

Nettles are also useful for plant life as well and a rich plant feed can be made from steeping nettles in water to make a 'nettle tea' which can be used neat to spray on foliage to deter pests and prevent fungal diseases, or used diluted to water the plants or soil. Alternatively nettles can be added to the compost heap where its nitrogen will assist in the breaking down of other plant matter. It has been reported that herbs with stinging nettles as neighbours tend to be healthier than those without and have a higher concentration of essential oils, making them more resiliant to pests.

Nettles tend to rob the soil of nutrients, resulting in a plant rich in minerals and vitamins, including iron, sulphur and silicon, beta-carotene, vitamins C, D and A and chlorophyll - for a healthy addition to your meals try steaming or cooking the fresh young nettle-tops, in much the same way as Spinach, and serve as a vegetable garnished with butter, use as an ingredient for a healthy soup, or add to a vegetarian lasagne or pasta bake. The French are so passionate about the stinging nettle that they make it not only into the classic soup, but also omelettes, sauces, jam and icecream (!), syrups, ales and liqueurs.

If you are harvesting your own nettles for consumption be sure to pick only young, fresh tops, ideally in the Spring, although you should be able to harvest fresh tops throughout the Summer - wear some thick gardening gloves to avoid being stung, or snip the tops off so that they fall into a basket. Ensure that you only pick nettles which are free from crop spray and avoid ones found growing by the side of busy roads or in built up areas. If you are harvesting the root the best time is in the Autumn.

The practice of urtication (generally as a remedy to rheumatic and arthritic aches and pains) dates back at least 2,000 years - fresh nettles are used to sting the affected area. This practice still continues today, and those that use it do report considerable relief from arthritic pains, but if you'd prefer a gentler option try drinking a nettle infusion on a regular basis - which will help clear out toxins in your joints. Nettle has a long history of use for arthritis, rheumatism and gout, and is effective at treating other inflammatory conditions such as tendonitis and bursitis.
A cleansing tea, especially beneficial to the liver and kidneys and the circulatory system, can be made by infusing 1 teaspoon of dried nettle to one cup of freshly boiled water - leave to infuse covered for at least 5 minutes. Blends particularly well with lemon balm and tastes delicious with a dash of fresh lemon juice. A nettle infusion is helpful in anaemic cases, especially where the anaemia is a result of heavy menstrual bleeding, and is an ideal cuppa for the 'time of the month', when it will help remedy bloating and breast tenderness, as well as heavy periods - and its iron content is an added bonus.

Nettle tea is also an effective remedy for dust and pollen related allergies / hay fever and asthma - in fact the stinging nettle is highly beneficial to the respiratory system in general, and has a long history of use in treatments for bronchitis, whooping cough, colds, tuberculosis and related lung problems. Culpeper recommended the use of nettles to ’...consume the phlegmatic superfluities in the body of man, that the coldness and moisture of winter has left behind.’

I mentioned earlier that nettle is beneficial to the kidneys - so it should come as no surprise that it's a remedy for [and preventative of] kidney stones. It's also a remedy for bladder infections - and it's a gentle and safe herb so you can happily drink several cups of nettle tea a day. It will help flush out toxins and support your kidneys, liver and circulatory and respiratory systems (which will in turn help remedy respiratory problems, clean out toxin build ups in joints and inflamed joints and tendons etc..)

For skin conditions dried nettles make an excellent healing ingredient to facial steams, and a nettle infusion or cream is good for acne, boils, and oily skin. Nettles are great for the hair (and have been cited as a remedy to thinning hair and baldness). If you're cooking any nettles up to eat, reserve the water you use to cook them in and use it as a hair rinse. Or you could just brew up a strong infusion of dried nettle leaves [and / or roots] and use as a hair rinse / scalp friction, or make up a herbal cider vinegar by steeping nettles in cider vinegar for a few weeks. Of course, drinking (or eating) nettles will also help improve hair condition.

Plant fibres from the stem of the nettles have a long history of use in the making of everything from ropes and papers, clothing and tablecloths, to sails and fishing nets and makes a surprisingly strong and smooth-textured fabric - reputedly stronger than cotton and finer than Hemp. A Bronze Age burial in Denmark revealed a shroud created from such fabric. During World Wars I and II the tough plant fibres were made into textiles and during WWII nettles were collected in quantity to prepare a dye for military uniforms. This role as a plant dye was not a new one, it has a long history of use as a popular wool and yarn dye - the leaves a yield a green dye, whereas the roots boiled with salt or alum yield a beautiful yellow dye. Modern research into Nettle as a crop suggests that although it gives a lower fibre yield than flax, it represents a much more environmentally friendly fibre crop compared to cotton - not only does it require less agrochemicals and irrigation, but as previously stated also supports numerous species of wildlife. Long live the Stinging Nettle!

A passage from Les Miserables concerning the lovely Stinging Nettle :
'One day he (Monsieur Madeleine) saw some peasants busy plucking out Nettles; he looked at the heap of plants uprooted and already withered, and said - "They are dead. Yet it would be well if people knew how to make use of them. When the nettle is young, its leaf forms an excellent vegetable; when it matures, it has filaments and fibres like hemp and flax. Nettle fabric is as good as canvas. Chopped, the nettle is good for poultry; pounded it is good for cattle. The seed of the nettle mingled with fodder imparts a gloss to the coats of animals; its root mixed with salt produces a beautiful yellow colour. It is besides excellent hay and can be cut twice. And what does the nettle require? Little earth, no attention, no cultivation. Only the seed falls as it ripens, and is difficult to gather. That is all. With a little trouble, the nettle would be useful; it is neglected, and becomes harmful." '

nettleNettle Soup
from "Food for Free" by Richard Mabey

4 large handfuls of nettle tops
1 large onion
50 g (2 oz) butter
2 potatoes
2 pints of vegetable stock
1 tablespoon of creme fraiche
Seasoning, including grated nutmeg

1. Strip the nettles from the thicker stalks, and wash.
2. Melt the butter and simmer the chopped onion until golden.
3. Add the nettles and the chopped potatoes and cook for two to three minutes.
4. Add the stock, and simmer for 20 minutes, using a wooden spoon from time to time to crush the potatoes.
5. Add the seasoning, plus a little grated nutmeg and serve with a whirl of creme fraiche
6 Or, if you would prefer a smoother soup, put the mixture through a liquidizer first. Reheat, and add seasoning and creme fraiche.

The poet, Campbell, complaining of the little attention paid to the Nettle in England, tells us:
'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 species of linen.'


pale leaves

Gaia's Garden Library
Non Fiction Section : Gaia's Garden Herblore | Susun S. Weed Articles | Articles and Musings
Fiction Section : Short Stories & Prose| As Told By Cat | Public Domain Texts| Poetry

Shop | Library | Gallery | Forum | Contact | Links