Herbs for Hedgewitches: Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica)

stinging nettleStithe it is called, it assails poison, It drives away the evil one, casts out poison.- the Nine Herbs Charm (translation by Bill Griffiths

If they would eat nettles in March and drink mugwort in May, so many fine maidens would not go to the clay. – Funeral song of a Scottish mermaid (quoted in Sacred Healing and Herbal Beers, by Stephen Harrod Buhner 

I mentioned in passing having chosen nettle yarn for the handknitted cords in my Tree Spirit Vessel Necklaces, but nettle is such an important plant, both medicinally and magically, that it deserves a post all its own, and in fact it ended up being the star ingredient in an impromptu new household festival we created last weekend: Spring Harvest, which from now on will coincide with our annual first trip to the farmer’s market, which tends to start up in early April here in Eugene. Spring Harvest is more of a celebration of the local landwights than of the gods, and involved a dinner of local foods: freshly cooked nettles alongside new potatoes (harvested just the night before) cooked with fresh caramelized leeks. A portion was given to our housewight and a plate was left outside in the wildest part of our yard for the wights.

For thousands of years, stinging nettle–emerging from the damp forest floor in February or March–has been one of the traditional first fresh green foods of spring. Before the advent of modern refrigeration and the ability to ship foods from anywhere on earth where it was still warm enough to grow things, winter meals consisted mainly of bread and preserved meats; as a result, scurvy was commonplace among northern peoples. Nettles are astringent, antiseptic, blood purifying, anti-hemorrhagic and diuretic, and have been used in traditional folk medicine to treat diarrhea, dysentery, liver problems, bowel problems, breathing problems, allergies, kidney and adrenal problems, digestive problems, and to nourish the skin and hair. And besides all of this, stinging nettle is extremely rich in vitamin C, protein, and a host of minerals, is a delicious green vegetable similar to spinach (but sweeter) when cooked, and can be used to brew a nourishing dark green tea or beer. Nettle stalks also contain a strong bast fiber that, once retted, can be spun to create a durable fiber similar to hemp or linen, and for thousands of years people made use of it for nets (although the common name “nettle” does not come from this practice) and rope as well as clothing. (It becomes surprisingly soft once it wears a little.)

The stinging nettle plant’s amazing array of nutritional and medicinal benefits made it the perfect spring tonic for our ancestors, a role it is still well suited for today. Many people today, sadly, have only experienced the dried nettles which can be brewed as a tisane (herbal tea) at any time of year, but nettle is widespread throughout much of the US and Europe, so if there is a forested area near you I’d encourage to you go take a walk there right about now (early-mid spring) band see if you can find some. They like to grow along pathways or in abandoned, wasted areas (such as places where vegetation has taken over again after buildings have long been abandoned) and aren’t very hard to identify once you know what to look for. (Refer to my photos below.) One author describes them as resembling a tall mint, only a lot more dangerous. I’d describe them more as a spiky plant that somewhat resembles raspberry, only more vertical, with larger and greener leaves that seem to form a kind of tower. Unlike raspberry or blackberry, they have no thorns, but they are covered in lots of tiny hairs.

nettles in bagWhich brings me to the one drawback of harvesting nettles in the wild: all of those fine hollow hairs act as hypodermic needles, injecting histamines and formic acid (the same stuff responsible for the sting from ant bites) when they come into contact with bare skin–thus giving rise to the “stinging” portion of their name. (This is also responsible for the common name of “nettle,” which means needle.) The remedy for this when harvesting them yourself is to wear gloves, have a bag ready for collecting them, and be careful not to let any part of the plant touch your skin. (Redness and welts will result if they do–nothing dire, just plenty of irritation which can be treated, by the way, by making a poultice of plantain, another of the Nine Herbs which is generally found growing not too far away.)handle with care

The sting can be deactivated either by cooking the plant or drying it, but you will want to take care in either case. The directions I followed myself, when we acquired our bag of fresh nettles from the farmer’s market, instructed me to soak the nettles in salted cold water for ten minutes to get rid of any insects, then boil half a pot of water with a little salt, and–handling the nettles with gloves–cook only 1-2 handfuls at a time, removing them from the pot before adding more. This is time consuming, but if you overcrowd the pot you run the risk of some of the nettles surviving with their sting intact. Lay the cooked nettles on a cutting board facing in the same direction and slice them in 1/2-1 inch sections. (The stems can be eaten too.) Once cooked, you can use them to make a pesto, put them in a quiche, or just eat them as is with a little butter and salt. The latter is what we did, and although the hairy texture was a little strange they tasted delicious!

The healing power of nettles is hinted at in the fairy tale featuring them, in which the heroine must weave shirts made of nettle to restore her brothers who have been turned into swans by their wicked stepmother. Magically, it should come as no great surprise–considering all those stingers–that nettle’s forte (in addition to healing) is protection. Like all thorny or prickly plants, it has a strong affinity for the runes Thorn (Thurisaz) and Eolh (Algiz), both of which can be called upon when extremely aggressive protection is needed. Wearing or carrying a nettle sachet will help protect you against curses, ill will, the evil eye, and other random forms of negativity, and encouraging nettle to grow at the edges of your yard can help ward your land, especially if you are on good terms with the greenwights. True to its mention in the Nine Herbs Charm, nettle is also a powerful purifier, and can be added to a cleansing bath (use dried nettle or nettle tea, not the fresh leaves!) to wash away negativity, ill wishing from others, and all the myriad other forms of ick that we can accumulate just in the course of living. And needless to say, the nettle yarn I used in the tree necklaces has these properties as well, adding this forest plant’s protective influence to the properties of the trees featured!