It’s a sparkling sunshiny morning as I let myself out into the lane, frost silvering the grass, blackthorn blossom puffing its pretty petals to the early morning light. Walking fast to warm up, I’m on a mission, and this is work, though it doesn’t feel like it! Awed at the blackbird’s stationary perch, tiny wood anemones uncurling from their icy sleep, I turn from the path, head deeper into tangled green, push through low boughs and muddy ridges, inhaling damp, woody green, that earthy smell, and dog like I pause to sniff and savour the air.
Early sunbeams are filtered here amongst the denser greens and wilder growth; Spring’s sprouting buds and tight furled leaves sprawl carpet like around my feet and there, hard by a wetter patch of earth, I see a patch of nettles. Demure yet richly dressed as any royal courtier, their new soft greens shimmer and catch the mossy light like hanks of silk stacked in a merchant’s store. Witchy looking, elegant yet plainly cut, no flowers yet, but tiny hairs, erect and bristling they stand ready in defence; this plant is beautiful and strong.
It is the nettles I have come to gather. Urtica dioica from the Latin Urtica which means burning, Uro, I burn; So, we know where they get their name from, but did you know, folk medicine and folk lore worldwide attribute strong powers of protection, inner strength, healing and self- healing to the nettle, qualities forever associated with women and with mothering; what we might perhaps call ‘women’s magic’.
Nettles are largely overlooked and dismissed in our modern society as unwanted weeds, a nasty stinging nuisance to be killed off, dug up, poisoned even, yet this is not what nettles are about. We need to dig a little deeper!
It is so often the case, that the old remedies and folklore of our ancestors is rooted in actual knowledge and there is usually something interesting lying behind most proverbs and old customs if we look hard enough to find it.
Nettles are transformative; they have an ability to turn infertile soil into fertile ground. Although nettles prefer to grow in nitrogen rich soil, preferably somewhere that is also quite damp, they will take root in hard, dry stony soil, turning it slowly into soft, hydrated friable earth.
This teaches us the importance of fortitude, of never giving up, but also illustrates most powerfully that even the hardest most intractable situation can be turned around. We as humans have the power to change our thoughts, to alter our actions and through nurturing we benefit not just those we care for, but we strengthen ourselves. So, the real ‘magic’ lies in the knowledge of one’s ability to change, or transform a situation through nurturing and a recognition of one’s self-worth.
Nettle reminds us that in nurturing others we create strength and a fertile environment around ourselves, in which others close to us can flourish and grow. This is surely one aspect of Mothering and begins to illustrate Nettle’s association with Women and their innate magic.
Nettles have long been known for their properties in helping reduce the pain from arthritis, rheumatism and other inflammatory conditions. There are stories of Roman soldiers in Britain beating themselves with bunches of stinging nettles to relieve the pain of aching joints, no doubt induced by the unaccustomed damp and colder climate here in Britain. In Anglo-Saxon Britain nettle was considered a sacred herb called wergula and by Medieval times it was being made into beer and specifically drunk to help with rheumatism.
According to the Anglo Saxon ‘Nine Herbs Charm’ recorded in the 10th century, stiðe (nettles) were used as a protection against "elf-shot" (these were pains in humans or livestock caused by the arrows of the Elvin folk) and "flying venom" (which was believed in those times to be one of the four main causes of illness). In Celtic mythology, a thick growth of nettles indicates there are fairy dwellings close by, and the sting of the nettle offers protection against fairy mischief, black magic, and other forms of sorcery.
The medicinal value of nettles is documented by Julie Bruton-Seal & Hedgerow Medicine. Naturally high in vitamin C, iron, many minerals and phytonutrients, nettles have always been an important food and medicinal ingredient. Nettle porridge, nettle tops added to soups and of course nettle tea were all familiar to our forebears, though today we see their use as something new and rather ‘green’.
As the iron in nettles is particularly easily assimilated and absorbed, it is a good tonic for anaemia, thus forming another link with motherhood. Even more intriguing, the flavour of natural nettle tea is very similar to milk, to mother’s milk, and there is much to read in ancient folklore about the strength invested in those who nurture. This is another reminder to take time to nourish yourself even whilst you nourish others.
Nicholas Culpepper, in his classic work Complete Herbal and English Physician says that Mars governs nettles. “You know Mars is hot and dry, and you know as well that winter is cold and moist; then you may know as well the reason nettle-tops, eaten in the spring, consumeth the phlegmatic superfluities in the body of man, that the coldness and moistness that winter hath left behind.”
Turning to my own subject of natural botanical skincare, I love the nettle for its ability to calm and soothe inflammation, and like many plants, nettle has numerous protective antioxidants that help reduce free radical damage to the skin, providing anti-aging benefits. We use it in one of our hand washes with wild mint to provide a very natural self-healing wash.
There have been and continue to be many clinical trials around the world testing the medicinal properties of Nettles. These include benign prostate enlargement, lower urinary tract symptoms and musculoskeletal pain including osteoarthritic pain. I wonder how the Roman soldiers got the idea to alleviate their aches and pains in this way?
We’re all familiar with the saying “grasp the nettle and it won’t sting” but who amongst us has been brave enough to try? Well, it is rooted in botanical fact: Nettles are armed with tiny stinging hairs, which can be found under the leaves and along the stems. On contact, the tiny needles pierce the skin and release chemicals which trigger inflammation and a sharp burning pain; some symptoms may last for several hours. Touch or lightly brush against these stinging hairs and they will pierce the skin, however, gasping the stem is more likely to flatten the hairs down against the stem, thus preventing them from stinging.
This is a verse taken from Works by Aaron Hill, Vol 4, 1753 and shows how even in the 18th Century folk were familiar with the proverb and ‘grasping the nettle’ was in everyday parlance.
“Tender-handed stroke a nettle, And it stings you, for your pains:
Grasp it like a man of mettle, And it soft as silk remains.”
Nettles are associated with the month of May in Ireland. In some regions, on April 30th, the evening before May Day was called 'Nettlemas night’. I mentioned that nettles prefer to live in damp, even soggy ground and this affinity with water and watery environments has traditionally resulted in their being associated with human emotions and conditions such as emotional stress.
Up to 60% of the human adult body is comprised of water and studies have shown how simply looking at water can have a soothing, calming effect, reducing feelings of stress. Though nettles can grow in dry ground, they may struggle and their potency will be reduced. “Water is life’s matter and matrix, mother and medium. There is no life without water.” (Albert Szent Gyorgyi M.D., Hungarian Biochemist who discovered Vitamin C).
Nettles have an almost self-healing quality, able to grow in poor arid conditions but they will eventually enrich that soil, creating a better environment both for themselves and for others to seed. It isn’t difficult to see from this where folklore links the plant to self-healing and portrays it as a ‘Guardian’, more often in the past seen near the threshold of a home.
Nettles have been grown, harvested and gathered wild for thousands of years. Documented accounts of their use date as far back as 1200 BC, and are spread throughout the world. Nettles were made into fabric by both the Europeans and Native Americans as early as the 16th century.
Fibres can be dried, pounded, and twisted into rope or processed to make cloth. The finished product can range in quality from a thick, rough fabric suitable perhaps for maritime use to a fine, soft textured cloth. The finest quality nettle fabric is as good as raw silk. And this was no marginal, obscure practice; nettles were once as common as hemp and flax in the making of every type of thread and yarn, from heavy sailcloth to fine linen for the table and this was the case well into the 18th Century.
When cotton came along it proved to be more economical as the process became increasingly mechanised, but in some remote regions of the Highlands of Scotland nettle cloth continued to be made until quite recently.
In Germany it was used during the first half of the 20th century, often combined with cotton to make undergarments, stockings, and fabrics. A piece of cloth made of nettle fibres was found wrapped around a bronze age burial in Denmark.
The 18th century poet Thomas Campbell said: "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 linen".
Returning to our gardens and wild spaces, we shouldn’t overlook how important nettles are in supporting over 40 species of insect and other small animals. Many nettle patches house overwintering insects which swarm around fresh spring growth and so provide early food for ladybirds. These ladybirds in turn are then eaten by blue tits and other small woodland birds. In late summer nettles produce large quantities of seeds and this provides more food for seed-eating birds, such as house sparrows, chaffinches, and bullfinches.
Nettles also attract other insect-eaters like hedgehogs, shrews, frogs and toads, and butterflies need nettles too. The larvae of the Small Tortoiseshell and Peacock Butterflies feed in large groups in huge silken canopies at the top of the nettle stems.
So, Nettles speak to us of spells, of love and healing and self-healing. Of ancient crafts and knowledge, bound together with protection, inner strength and fortitude. They show us loss and loyalty, their opposing natures both hurtful and restorative, common garden weeds yet powerful and vital. Their properties weave and knot together into the most traditional of women’s skills: caring, nurturing, healing, spinning, protecting. They are rich. Tenacious. Modest and often overlooked.
And so, as we take our woodland walks and get busy in the garden once again this Spring, let’s look kindly on the nettle, a kindred soul, and a gentle reminder to acknowledge our own unbounded wellspring of self- worth.
Poem by Edward Thomas. 1878 – 1917:
Tall nettles cover up, as they have done These many springs, the rusty harrow, the plough Long worn out, and the roller made of stone: Only the elm butt tops the nettle now. This corner of the farmyard I like most As well as any bloom upon a flower I like the dust on the nettles, never lost Except to prove the sweetness of a shower.