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OCTOBER: NETTLE – Urtica dioica

Nettle Description and Habitat: The Nettle is a native British perennial which can be found almost anywhere. While they thrive best in soil rich in nitrogen, they can be found on any fertile land in river valleys and woodland glades or by roadsides. The Nettle has a richly-branched, yellow rhizome which spreads over large areas and from which grow numerous, erect quadrangular stems. These are up to 120cm tall and are covered with long stinging hairs and short bristly hairs. Its heart-shaped, finely toothed leaves which taper to a point carry serotonin, histamine and formic acid and a brush with the leaves of this herb results in inflammation and irritation which can last for a couple of days.

The Nettle belongs to the genus 'Urtica' and this name is derived from the Latin, uro, which means ‘to burn’. Its white spring flowers are incomplete. The male or barren flowers have stamens only while the female or fertile flowers have only pistil or seed-producing organs. Sometimes these different kinds of flowers are to be found on one plant. But usually a plant will bear either male or female flowers throughout, hence the specific name of the plant, 'dioica', which means 'two houses’.

The Nettle tribe 'Urticaceae' is widely spread over the world and contains about 500 species, mainly tropical, though several like our common Stinging Nettle, occur widely in temperate climates. Many of these species have stinging hairs on their stems and leaves. Painful as are the consequences of touching one of our common Nettles, they are far exceeded by the effects of handling some of the East Indian species. A Java species produces effects which last for a whole year and are even said to cause death.

It is a strange fact that the juice of the Nettle proves an antidote for its own sting and being applied will afford instant relief. The juice of the Dock, which is usually found in close proximity to the Nettle, has the same beneficial action. 'Nettle in, dock out. Dock rub, nettle out!' is an old rhyme. The sting of a Nettle may also be cured by rubbing the stung area with Rosemary, Mint or Sage leaves.

Common names: Urticae herba, Urticae radix, Stinging nettle, common nettle. German = Grosse brandnetel, French = Grande ortie, Spanish = ortiga, Italian = Grande ortica.

The Anglo Saxon name for the Nettle is Netel, which is said to have been derived from Noedl (a needle), possibly from the sharp sting or the fact that it was this plant that supplied the thread used in former times by the Germanic and Scandinavian nations before the general introduction of flax; Net is the passive participle of ne, a verb common to most of the Indo-European languages in the sense of 'spin' and 'sew' (Latin = nere, German = na-hen, Sanskrit = nah). Nettle would seem to have meant primarily 'that with which one sews'.

The Nettle fibre is very similar to that of Hemp or Flax and it was used for the same purposes, from making cloth of the finest texture down to the coarsest, such as sailcloth, sacking, cordage, etc. In the sixteenth and seventeenth century Nettle fibres were widely used in Scotland for weaving. 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.”

Green (Universal Herbal, 1832) says that the Nettle yarn was particularly useful for making twine for fishing nets, the fibre of the Nettle being stronger than those of flax and not as harsh as those of hemps. When Germany and Austria ran short of cotton during the First World War, the value of the Nettle as a substitute was at once recognized and the two ordinary species U. Dioica and U. Urens (the great and the smaller Nettle), were specially selected for textiles. In 1915, 1.3 million kilograms of this material were collected in Germany, a quantity which increased to 2.7 million kilograms in 1916 and this without any attempt at systematic cultivation. The quantity of Nettles grown wild in Germany was estimated at 60,000 tons, but as time went on it was found that self-sown Nettles were insufficient in quantity for the need. So in 1917 some 70,000 hectares of Nettles were cultivated.

The Nettle fibre is equal to the best Egyptian cotton. It can be dyed and bleached in the same way as cotton and when treated is but slightly inferior to silk. It has been considered much superior to cotton for velvet and plush and can also be used to make paper. The by-products of the Nettle were also widely used, the Nettle not only supplying a substitute for cotton, but for such indispensable articles as sugar, starch, protein and ethyl alcohol.

From a culinary point of view the Nettle has an old reputation. Still widely gathered each spring as a pot-herb, it also makes a healthy, easily digestible vegetable similar to sea kale and in Scotland is used with leeks, broccoli and rice to make Nettle pudding. Throughout Britain, it is still used to make Nettle Beer as a remedy for gouty and rheumatic pains, but apart from this purpose it also forms a pleasant refreshing drink.

Nettles are of considerable value as fodder for live-stock. Although only the Ass will eat them where they are growing, when cut and allowed to become wilted, they lose their sting and are then readily eaten by livestock. When dried, cows relish them and give more milk than when fed on hay alone. In Sweden and Russia, the Nettle has sometimes been cultivated as a fodder plant, being mown several times a year, and given to milch cattle. It has been found that horses which had become thin and suffered from digestive troubles benefited from the use of Nettle leaves in their rations. The Nettle is also of great use to the keeper of poultry. Dried and powdered finely and put into the food, it increases egg-production and is healthy and fattening and Turkeys and Pigs also thrive on dried Nettles. In Holland and also in Egypt, horse-dealers mix the seeds of Nettles with oats or other food to give the animals a sleek coat. Although in Britain upwards of thirty insects feed solely on the Nettle plant, flies have a distaste for the plant, and a fresh bunch of Stinging Nettles will keep a larder free from them. The Nettle is also an excellent compost accelerator and if the crushed leaves and stems are added to water and left for four weeks, the resulting liquid is an excellent concentrated plant food (dilute one part to ten parts of water).

The juice of the Nettle, or a decoction formed by boiling the green herb in a strong solution of salt, will curdle milk, providing the cheese-maker with a good substitute for rennet. The same juice, if rubbed liberally into small seams in leaky wooden tubs coagulates and will render them once more watertight. A decoction of Nettle yields a beautiful and permanent green dye, which is used for woollen stuffs in Russia. The roots, boiled with alum, produce a yellow colour, which was formerly widely used in country districts to dye yarn and is also used by the Russian peasants to stain eggs yellow on Maundy Thursday.

Collection: The leaves are collected from June to October during the flowering period, the roots in spring and autumn. The herb should be collected when the flowers are in bloom, preferable just as they are beginning to open. Only cut the tender new growth at the top of the herb. When the herb is collected for drying, it should be gathered only on a fine day, in the morning, when the sun has dried off the dew.

Constituents: Histamine, formic acid, chlorophyll, glucoquinine, iron, potassium, calcium, silica and vitamin C.

Actions: Mild diuretic, astringent, tonic, haemostatic, dermatological agent; extracts are reported to have hypoglycaemic properties.

Indications: Asthma, Iodine deficiency, kidney disorders, lung health, rhinitis (stuffy nose), thyroid disorders, urinary tract infections and inflammation, rheumatic conditions, uterus haemorrhage, cutaneous eruptions (skin rashes), eczema and nose bleeds.

Therapeutics and Pharmacology: The Nettle is rich in iron and vitamin C, making it a useful remedy in anaemia and other debilitated states, the presence of the vitamin C ensuring that the iron is properly absorbed. The herb has an important effect on the kidney and on fluid and uric acid excretion and so is of benefit in gout and other arthritic conditions, particularly if there is an element of anaemia. It has also used to treat chickenpox and externally for bruises.

The Nettle is also of benefit in chronic skin conditions such as eczema, helping to cleanse the body of accumulated toxins. An infusion of the dried leaf is effective in helping to control dandruff and hair loss on the scalp. As a haemostatic and astringent, the Nettle has few equals as an arrester of bleeding and it has also been used for haemorrhoids and to treat gastric and intestinal problems. The powdered leaves were traditionally used as a snuff to arrest nosebleeds. Old writers recommended a small piece of lint, moistened with Nettle juice, to be placed in the nostril in bad cases of nosebleeding. The diluted juice provides a useful astringent gargle. Burns may be cured rapidly by applying to them linen cloths well wetted with Nettle tincture and an infusion of the fresh leaves is also soothing and healing as a lotion for burns. Nettle is one of the best cures for scurvy. An infusion known as Nettle Tea is a common spring medicine in rural districts, and has long been used as a blood purifier. The Nettle is known to stimulate milk flow in nursing mothers and is often used in this way by farmers for their stock. Nettle tea has been used to relieve heavy menstrual bleeding and as a useful drink during pregnancy and while breast feeding.

Contraindications: In a few individuals, exposure to the histamine in fresh nettles can be extremely dangerous. However, in the dried or cooked state nettles are completely non-toxic and may be eaten freely as a vegetable or drunk as an infusion.

Folklore: Ever since the Romans and perhaps before, arthritic joints were sometimes treated by whipping the joint with a branch of stinging nettles. The theory was that it stimulated blood circulation and thus reduced swelling and pain in the joint. Nettles are reputed to enhance fertility in men and fever could be dispelled by plucking a nettle up by its roots while reciting the names of the sick person and also the names of that person’s family.

If planted in the neighbourhood of beehives, it is said the Nettle will drive away frogs. In the highlands and islands of Scotland, it was believed that nettles grew from the bodies of the dead and it was believed in Denmark that clumps of nettles grew on the blood that was shed by innocent victims. Nettles were also called devil’s claw/devil’s plaything and were thought to mark the living place of the elves. Roman soldiers were said to have brought their nettle north with them and used it to rub on their skin to keep out the cold.

In old Herbals the seeds, taken inwardly, were recommended for the stings or bites of venomous creatures and mad dogs and as an antidote to poisoning by Hemlock, Henbane and Nightshade.

The powdered seeds have been considered efficacious in reducing excessive corpulency. A novel treatment for diabetes was reported by a sufferer from that disease in the daily press of April, 1926, it being affirmed that a diet of young Nettles (following a two days' fast) and drinking the brew of them had been the means of reducing his weight by 6 stone in three days and had vastly improved his condition!



Last Updated on Monday, 04 October 2010 13:33  



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