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Grasping the Nettle

By Audrey Stallsmith

urtica dioica

We call a nettle but a nettle and the faults of fools but folly.

William Shakespeare, Coriolanus

Shakespeare's characters seem to have shared a common prejudice against the nettle, Cordelia listing it among the "idle weeds." When, as children, my siblings and I brushed painfully up against the plant in our nitrogen-rich barnyard, we would have agreed with the assessment--plus probably throwing in a few stronger adjectives!

And all of us were wrong. The nettle is actually one of the least idle weeds in history. It was supposedly introduced into England by the macho Romans, who brought it along to help keep them warm.

The original netel derives from noedl or "needle." This may have referred to the plant's needle-like sting. But it may equally well have referred to the fact that, before flax became popular, the northern European countries used the nettle plant as the source for most of their thread.

I remember a certain Hans Christian Anderson tale about a princess and eleven swans. The swans were, as you may recall, her brothers who had been trapped by an evil spell in the birds' bodies. That spell could only be broken if the princess made each of them a coat from nettles, and didn't utter a word the whole time she was doing it. Back when I first heard the story, the unlikelihood of fashioning cloth out of those evil weeds added to the magic of the idea for me. But now I discover that it was really quite a common practice.

The poet, Campbell, commented that "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."

Germany and Austria, in fact, reverted to the plant during World War I when their supply of cotton ran low. They often mixed it with a small amount of ramie. Ramie, frequently used in sweaters these days, is actually a tropical member of the nettle family.

Some of you may have gotten distracted by another use that Campbell indicated. "Eat nettles?" I can almost hear you exclaim. Yes, the nettle is a very nutritious and blood-purifying spring green when cooked like spinach. You should be careful to harvest it, however, when it is only six to eight inches tall--and to wear gloves for the process!

You should never eat the mature plant, since it will be gritty with crystals. The nettle was so popular as a spring vegetable in Scotland that it was often forced under glass, then combined with leeks and broccoli, cabbage, or brussel sprouts in a rice pudding.

Nettles are the only food for three types of butterflies: the Atalanta, Paphia, and the Urticae, and the favorite food of still another, the Io. Once wilted, the weeds are also good fodder for livestock. They will make your horse's coat--or your own mane--soft and glossy. I occasionally boil up a nettle tea to use as a final rinse after shampooing.

Dr. Andrew Weil prescribes freeze-dried nettle for hay fever and other allergies. This is nothing new, since the plant has long been used to treat asthma, colds, and other respiratory troubles. It is good for the kidneys and will stop internal or external bleeding. Some say that nettle will also kill worms and prevent TB. Jethro Kloss recommended it, along with sea wrack, for dieting--or "reducing," as it was called in his day.

Certain brave souls have also flayed themselves with fresh nettles to treat rheumatism. I don't think this is a good idea, however. I can testify from experience that a nettle rash will heat your skin all right, but it also hurts like crazy.

The stings come from the plant's sharp little spines, each of which has a venom sac at its base filled with a type of ammonia. Fortunately, the pain usually dies away after a few minutes, unlike the "envy" or "slander" for which the nettle stands in the Language of Flowers.

Rosemary, dock, or sage leaves rubbed on the rash may help relieve it. And, strangely enough, the juice of the nettle plant is supposed to be an antidote to its own sting. Perhaps that explains an old saying which goes, "Tender-handed grasp the nettle, and it stings you for your pains. Grasp it like a man of mettle, and it soft as silk remains." You won't catch me trying it!

The saying does make sense, though, when you see it as an analogy for any painful problem. Try to ignore that problem, and you're liable to keep brushing smartingly up against it. Better to grasp and make something good out of it!

Urtica dioica image is from Flora von Deutschland Osterreich und der Schweiz by Otto Wilhelm Thome, courtesy of the TAMU Vascular Plant Image Library.