Stinging nettles make excellent companion plants, helping to produce healthy vegetables
The common stinging nettle has long been used as a protective herb. A vase of freshly cut nettles under a sickbed is supposed to help the patient recover from whatever is ailing him or her. Nettles sprinkled around the house will ward off evil. Nettles tossed on to a fire will avert danger and carried by hand will fend off ghosts. When carried with yarrow, nettles will bestow courage. In ancient Ireland, nettles were known as “The Devil’s Apron.”
Legend maintains that Roman soldiers, who used nettles for “urtification,” brought the plant to Britain. That is, they beat themselves with the herb to encourage surface blood circulation in an effort to keep warm in the dismal, damp climate to which they had been banished.
The name nettle may originate with the Anglo-Saxon word netel, which in turn is derived from noedl, meaning needle. Another possibility is simply that the herb – since the Bronze Age – has been spun into fibre to make cloth, paper and fishnet, and the name originated with this usage. The botanical name, urtica, is from the Latin, urere, meaning “to sting”.
Nettles as fiber
At one time, nettles were actually cultivated in northern Europe to make linen, coarse sailcloth and fishnets. To make the cloth, nettles were cut, dried and soaked in water. The fibres were then separated and spun into yarn. Eventually, flax superceded nettles. But they were still being used in Scotland in the 19th century to make a crude household cloth known as “scotchcloth”. In the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale, The Princess and the Eleven Swans, the coats the princess made for her brothers were woven from nettles.
It is to be hoped in this enlightened age that gardeners will invite this wonderful herb into their garden and not regard it as a weed. Recent tests in organic gardening have confirmed that nettles make excellent companion plants, helping to produce healthy vegetables such as broccoli and conferring keeping qualities on tomatoes by impeding the fermentation process in the plant’s juices. Nettles will increase the production of essential oil in peppermint and boost the potency of all nearby herbs. Nettles in your compost heap will not only add nutrients, but also accelerate the breakdown of matter into robust humus.
Nettles are a perennial to zone 2 with a germination period of 10–14 days. They prefer full sun to partial shade and like a slightly damp soil rich in nitrogen. The herb may be propagated by seed, cuttings or root division.
As a vegetable, nettles are best when they’re young and tender, but for medicinal purposes the herb should be collected when the flowers are in bloom, anytime from June to September.
The aerial parts of the plant are rich in chlorophyll, indoles such as histamine and serotonin, acetylcholine, glucoquinones, minerals (iron, silica, potassium, manganese and sulfur), tannins and vitamins A and C. The herb is also a good source of protein and dietary fibre. The disagreeable sting of the nettle is caused by formic acid.
Nettles as medicinal herb
The herb is astringent, diuretic, tonic and hypotensive (reduces blood pressure). Nettles strengthen and support the whole body. Throughout Europe they are used as a spring tonic and general detoxifying remedy. In some cases of rheumatism and arthritis they can be astoundingly successful. They are a specific in cases of childhood eczema and beneficial in all the varieties of this condition, especially in nervous eczema.
As an astringent they may be used for nosebleeds or to relieve the symptoms wherever there is hemorrhage in the body, for example in uterine hemorrhage. Research into the therapeutic properties of nettle root in the US, Germany and Japan show promise for its use in the treatment of benign prostate hypertrophy (enlargement).
According to Master Herbalist, David L. Hoffmann, B.Sc.; M.N.I.M.H., conditions that benefit from the use of nettles include: diarrhea, dysentery, hemorrhoids, hemorrhages, fevers, gravel, inflammation of the kidneys, chronic diseases of the colon, eczema and cystitis. Nettles will combine well with figwort and burdock in the treatment of eczema. As an infusion, pour a cup of boiling water over one to two teaspoonfuls of the dried herb or herbs and leave to infuse for l0 to l5 minutes. This should be drunk three times a day. As a tincture, take one to four millilitres of the tincture three times a day.
Also, nettles are antiallergenic. The herb is effective for hay fever, asthma, and skin problems due to allergies and insect bites. Ironically, nettle juice is a very good antidote for nettle stings.
Nettles as livestock feed
Nettles make good feed for livestock. In northern Europe nettles are mowed and fed to cattle, chicken and horses. For horses the herb supplies albuminoid, an excellent conditioning protein that gives the animals a sleek coat. Also a dye plant, nettles make an attractive permanent green dye. The roots boiled with alum produce yellow, which was once used to dye yarns.
Because of their infamous sting, nettles require gloved hands and a long-sleeved shirt for harvesting. When cooked or dried nettles lose their sting. Steamed, they taste very much like spinach and the convention is that it is best to pick them when young. However, we made Nettle and Basil Soup with mature nettle leaves and it was delicious.
Bruce Burnett is an award-winning writer, a chartered herbalist and author of HerbWise: Growing, Cooking, Wellbeing. Learn more at HerbWise.ca.