Susan's Herbal Notebook

Plant Lore, Garden Mysteries, and Herbal Magic

Nettle

Being stung by a nettle is no picnic. First it bites, then it burns—for a long while. Some nettles can cause death, and all can sting even when they're dry. For example, when a plant museum was being moved out of London during World War II, a long-dead 150-year-old nettle stung one of the workers. That's persistence for you.

Some etymologists say that nettle take its common name from the Anglo-Saxon word noedl, or needle. Or it might come from the word net, which is derived from a verb meaning 'to spin' or 'to sew.' Before hemp and flax were introduced into northern Europe, nettle was the chief fiber plant. A fine-spun thread might be used to weave bed-linens; a coarse-spun yarn for sacking or sailcloth. Even after flax was available, nettle was preferred for fishing nets—stronger than flax, and not as rough as hemp. Eventually, though, flax won out as a fiber plant, because it could be grown and harvested more economically—and without biting.

Of course, you can always bite back. In England, the young plants were cooked and eaten like spinach. In Scotland, they were used in vegetable soup, and cooked with leeks and broccoli to make Nettle Pudding. Nettle beer was also a favorite. One recipe calls for a bucket of nettles, a couple of handfuls of dandelions and goosegrass, and some ginger.

Nettle is rich in vitamins and minerals, so herbalists recommend it as a spring tonic and blood purifier. The powdered leaves were used to stop bleeding. And even the infamous sting had a medicinal use. Flogging with nettles was an old remedy for chronic arthritis. Some herbalists believe the nettle served as a counter-irritant—easing one pain by causing another—while others think that the histamines and formic acid in the stings might have relieved the pain.

But if you get stung and you don't have arthritis, folk medicine offers a pain reliever. Rub those stings with some yellow dock leaves.

Where will you find them?

Look around. That's probably a yellow dock, growing right beside the nettle.

Nature likes to arrange things that way.