Notes from the Apothecary: Stinging Nettles
Called nettles, stinging nettles, or common nettle, this jagged-leafed plant is a hardy little medicine cabinet packed with folklore and magic. Urtica Dioica is the scientific name for the most commonly recognised species, and it’s found all over the world in hedgerows, woodlands, and anywhere where there is space for it to grow. Gardeners may hate nettles for stinging their fingers unexpectedly when weeding, and anyone who has been out hiking in shorts knows what a nettle sting on the leg feels like! But these feisty and fierce “weeds” have more uses than you would imagine, and can easily be forgiven for the occasional sting.
The Kitchen Garden
Finding nettles in your garden might be annoying, especially if they’re growing up through a flower bed or herb patch. However, you might find that you get some use out of the plants before getting rid of them completely. Heads up – nettles can and will grow to six feet tall if left unchecked. There’s some at the top of my garden right now that are way taller than me and not that far off my husband, who is six foot two! Needless to say the kids don’t play in that bit of the garden right now, as no matter how useful the plant, a nettle sting to the face is not a nice thing to deal with – especially for a three-year-old.
Many people harvest nettles long before they get to this tall and leggy stage. Young nettle leaves are particularly preferred for tea, cooking as a green vegetable, soups, drying as an herb, or making into a type of pesto. Even if you harvest the older leaves, always harvest before the plant flowers, to avoid internal irritation.
But what about the sting? Well, if you were to start licking live nettle plants, that would be problematic, of course! The great news is that you can dry, freeze, soak, or cook nettles and the sting is neutralised, leaving them safe to eat.
Top tip: Everyone says that dock leaves are the best remedy for a nettle sting, but if you spot any ribwort plantain (pictured here with their unmistakeable flowers), this is even better thanks to natural anti-inflammatory properties.
It’s difficult to know where to start with nettle as a medicine, primarily because it’s like the ultimate multivitamin-slash-mineral tablet in leaf form.
They are also rich in potassium, which can help regulate blood pressure, regulate how you deal with sodium in your body (salt), and can even help keep your kidneys healthy.
We use calcium in every cell in our body, and nettles are an excellent source. A cup of nettle greens provides a third of your recommended daily intake of calcium, making it ideal for vegans and others that can’t ingest dairy.
Nettles are also high in protein, required for cell repair and muscle growth. Plant-based protein can be considered healthier than animal-based protein, but everyone is different so work to your own dietary needs.
As well as the clear nutritional benefits of nettles, they have been used in folk medicine across the world for centuries. It’s been used to alleviate menstrual cramps and to help regulate heavy bleeding. It’s used for kidney disorders – no doubt a link to the high potassium content. Even the stinging action of the nettle has been used historically and even to this day to stimulate the circulation and aid in the management of painful conditions like arthritis and rheumatism.
The Witch’s Kitchen
The nettle has a varied folklore throughout the world. In some ways, it is mundanely magical; it provides so many opportunities for health and healing, that this in itself is a form of magic to be revered. However, there are other associations witches and Pagans may want to explore.
In some lore from indigenous American peoples, the nettle was used in rituals to promote strength and protect from adverse weather, particularly in the case of those who fished or hunted.
In one European tale, “The Wild Swans”, coats of nettles are used to transform bewitched children back into themselves. There’s a dual association here; both the links to breaking spells or curses, but also the sacrifice of the person doing the “undoing”, as they had to suffer through the pain of the stings whilst weaving the nettle coats. This may also represent courage – sometimes we have to do difficult things even though it pains us.
According to the Anglo-Saxon Nine Herbs Charm, nettles were again protective, this time against poison, venom, and even sickness. Nettles may also be associated with both Thor and Loki, and a sign that magic is afoot nearby or that otherworldly creatures reside here.
I Never Knew…
In America, another common species is Urtica chamaedryoides, the dwarf stinging nettle, which may have a much more vicious sting for some than the common nettle.
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About the Author:
Mabh Savage is a Pagan author, poet and musician, as well as a freelance journalist.