The stinging nettle only
Will still be found to stand:
The numberless, the lonely,
The thronger of the land,
The leaf that hurts the hand.
That thrives, come sun, come showers;
Blow east, blow west, it springs:
It peoples towns, and towers
Above the courts of Kings,
And touch it and it stings.
(The Stinging Nettle, A.E. Housman)
The Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica) is a favorite of mine; I’m one of those persons who likes to be stung by it — by the unexpected encounter with its fine hairs — I am not too bothered by the sensation but rather enjoy its reminder of being alive, of vitality, of the fact that the very stings of life itself can so often propel us to better things by some strange burning.
In fact, Urtica is derived from the ancient Greek εὔω, “to singe” and/or αὔω, “to kindle”. And like life itself, it is everywhere around us, waiting to surprise us, to burn us, to heal us.
Nettle is used to treat a variety of complaints, but often appears in hair applications (for scalp issues such as dandruff), to build up a weakened body as a tea or tincture (it is rich in minerals and is a tonic restorative), or, in fresh form, to combat allergies.
She is another herb that I associate with the coming of Spring, but here in Dublin I have seen her flourishing throughout the winter. A small patch grows beneath a Sycamore tree in the park, and I glimpse her now and again near the train station waste places and along the avenues.
In fact, experimenting with Nettle — traditionally used as a Spring Tonic — is a great way to cross the threshold from winter into spring, when your body may be weary, weakened, and dried out. A rhyme in Britain and Ireland, once widely quoted, goes like so:
“…three Nettles in May keeps all diseases away”
(Allen & Hatfield, 85)
I personally take Nettle tea in the week prior to and during the week of my menstrual cycle to keep myself well-balanced and not anaemic. I have made fresh Nettle tincture for family and friends with bad allergies (with good results), and enjoyed it in cuisine.
You can learn more in-depth about Nettle here in the Materia Medica.
Meanwhile, here’s a wee story for you and a recipe below.
Remember The Wild Swans, by Hans Christian Anderson (1838)? It is a rather interesting and indirect illustration of plant-gatherer as witch.
The coats that the princess Elisa weaves for the swans (really her brothers) were made of Nettle (the interior fibre of the stems was in fact used in textiles as thread, before the coming of flax). The Queen of the Fairies directs Elisa to gather the nettles in the churchyard — among the dead — and being under a vow of silence, the princess cannot cry out even as her hands are blistered while she works (one word results in the death of a brother):
“Your brothers can be set free,” she [The Fairy] said, “but have you the courage and tenacity to do it? The sea water that changes the shape of rough stones is indeed softer than your delicate hands, but it cannot feel the pain that your fingers will feel. It has no heart, so it cannot suffer the anguish and heartache that you will have to endure. Do you see this stinging nettle in my hand? Many such nettles grow around the cave where you sleep. Only those and the ones that grow upon graves in the churchyards may be used – remember that! Those you must gather, although they will burn your hands to blisters. Crush the nettles with your feet and you will have flax, which you must spin and weave into eleven shirts of mail with long sleeves. Once you throw these over the eleven wild swans, the spell over them is broken. But keep this well in mind! From the moment you undertake this task until it is done, even though it lasts for years, you must not speak. The first word you say will strike your brothers’ hearts like a deadly knife. Their lives are at the mercy of your tongue. Now, remember what I told you!”
She touched Elisa’s hand with nettles that burned like fire and awakened her. It was broad daylight, and close at hand where she had been sleeping grew a nettle like those of which she had dreamed. She thanked God upon her knees, and left the cave to begin her task.
With her soft hands she took hold of the dreadful nettles that seared like fire. Great blisters rose on her hands and arms, but she endured it gladly in the hope that she could free her beloved brothers. She crushed each nettle with her bare feet, and spun the green flax.
When her brothers returned at sunset, it alarmed them that she did not speak. They feared this was some new spell cast by their wicked stepmother, but when they saw her hands they understood that she laboured to save them. The youngest one wept, and wherever his tears touched Elisa she felt no more pain, and the burning blisters healed.
(De vilde Svaner, translated by Jean Hersholt)
Well, the King comes along, loves her, and gives her a room in his castle where she can keep on making Nettle shirts…until one day Elisa runs out of Nettles! She has to go back to the graveyard to get some more, and the Archbishop, who has already been telling the King for some time that she’s a witch, catches her in the act and she’s condemned to burn at the stake.
She keeps on weaving the Nettles even in the cart that carries her to her execution. The mob sees this incessant sewing and tries to take the shirts she is making. The swan-brothers attack, which the people think is a divine sign of her intelligence, but she’s still going to burn. She tosses the shirts to the swans and they resume their human form. While the brothers explain (the mute Elisa has fainted), the timber at the stake beneath her feet bursts into flower. The King plucks one blossom and gives it to Elisa and…happily ever after…
Below is a recipe for Nettle soup, which I often made with my wonderful co-apprentice in Scotland. We would go down to a cool glade on the Isle of Arran and gather the Nettle along with a few fronds of Wild Garlic, which grew so abundantly in that place and moved in the wind like the surface of the sea, that we henceforth referred to it as the Garlic Glade.
The Vitamin C in the Nettles helps the iron to be absorbed by the body.
Arran Nettle Soup
Fresh Nettle leaves
As always, gather away from areas polluted by humans or exhaust fumes. You can estimate how much by loosely filling your serving bowls with the fresh leaves, then transferring them into your pot later. Be careful not to sting yourself — use gloves to remove the leaves from the stems.**
3-6 leaves of Wild Garlic
Not easy to come by, perhaps, where you are! Add a couple garlic cloves instead, to taste.
Peeled or not peeled, according to preference.
Salt/pepper to taste, or add in a bouillon cube for additional flavor.
What to Do
Simmer your potato, just covered by the water in the pot, until soft. About five minutes before finished, add fresh Nettle leaves and Garlic leaves and simmer. Do make sure you leave the Nettles in there for the full five minutes to de-activate the stinging hairs on the leaves. Blend all ingredients with a hand blender or food processor and season to taste.
Serve garnished with wild garlic or a dollop of yogurt or cream.
** If Stung by Nettle:
Traditionally, one looks for Dock, which often grows nearby, and rubs its leaves on the affected area. Old sayings (cf. Grieve) go:
Nettle in, dock out.
Dock rub nettle out!
Out ‘ettle, in dock,
Dock zhall ha’ a new smock;
‘Ettle zhant ha’ narrun! (none)
Grieve also suggests using Mint, Sage, or Rosemary to alleviate the stings.