There are three memories from my childhood that, for reasons unbeknown, creep up on me at least a few times a week. These memories are of the stinging nettle, a plant most of us do our damned best to avoid, unless we know how to utilize it.
The first memory is of when my seven year old brother was on his bike, and fell into a crowd of nettles. I can still remember the pained expression on his little, summer-tanned face as he staggered into my mum’s arms.
The second memory is when my best friend and I were about nine and had been sunbathing in the meadow behind her house. (We’d put lemon juice in our hair and were waiting for the sun to turn our heads white blonde.) It was late afternoon and time to raid the larder, and on our way inside, a nettle brushed against my bare ankle. As soon as I felt the tingle, I spun around, grabbed a handful of dock leaves and frantically rubbed the little welts as they bubbled up from my skin.
And the third memory is of being in school, and being told the Grimm’s fairytale of The Six Swans, where a sister must make her six brothers shirts from nettles to release them from their cursed feathery existence.
I’ve no idea why these memories return to me so often, but it came to the point where I thought, ‘okay, I’m going to have to write about the stinging nettle.’ Since then, I’ve spawned a poem for my next collection, and, in turn, this post, where I’ll talk about the lore behind these sharp toothed plants.
The memories could also be a sign that I should use them for magical purposes – burning nettles can drive out negativity, and there’s a sure lot of that around me nowadays. However, I don’t think I’ll be following the Bulgarian practice where the oldest woman in the house stings the children’s legs while they’re in bed, as it’s said to bring good luck…
The stinging nettle, also known as the common nettle, marks the return of spring, and over the warm months, it can grow up to 7ft. It’s usually found growing in the shade where the ground is good and moist. After flourishing in spring and summer, it dies back in winter.
The stinging nettle is renowned for its attacks, of which the ‘wounds’ can last for days. The stinging hairs are like glass and, when touched, break off in your skin releasing histamine and other chemicals. However, you can actually avoid getting hurt if you grasp the leaf firmly instead of brushing against it. The hairs that sting are crushed down flat.
The reason the stinging nettle stings is, quite simply, because it’s trying to protect itself and it’s space. It didn’t come as a surprise to me to learn that the plant’s element is fire! It’s also associated with the sign of Scorpio and the planet Mars.
Ever since childhood, I’ve known that if I’m stung by a nettle, I need to get a dock leaf and rub it against the sting. The sap in the dock leaf contains an antihistamine that works to soothe the pain.
It’s said to be coincidental that dock leaves and nettles are found close by to each other. Interestingly is that dock is considered a weed, and landowners are told to take measures against its spread. The stinging nettle, on the other hand, can be left well alone.
In times of yore, people used the stinging nettle to create a spring tonic that, after the long winter months, was a valuable source of vitamins and minerals. It could also enhance immunity as well as provide protection from infections.
While I’ve never tried eating nettles, it’s said the flavour, when cooked, is like a combination of spinach and cucumber. To destroy the sting, nettles need to be cooked or dried. You can eat them raw, but you must first fold the leaf numerous times to crush the hairs.
Stinging nettle can be used in a variety of different ways – for tea, soup, bread, even cheese. As well as being a fine food for us flesh walkers, nettles are an important food source for butterflies and moths.
Related to flax and hemp, nettles have been used for thousands of years to produce thread and yarn. The first nettle textile to be discovered in Europe was from the late Bronze Age and was found in Denmark. In Poland, nettle thread was used until the 17th century and until the 19th century in Scandinavia and Scotland. It’s said that fabrics made of nettles were by far the most durable, and it was common for our ancestors to sleep under nettle sheets.
Some of my favourite alternative names for nettles include Devil’s Claw, Devil’s Plaything, Devil’s Leaf, Wild Spinach and Burn Weed.
Writing about nettles isn’t something I could have foreseen, but I’ve enjoyed it so bloody much that I’m going to continue delving into the lore behind other plants. I think the thistle will come next…
For now though, I’ll leave you with this quote from herbalist David Hoffman.
“When in doubt, Nettles.” – David Hoffman