Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica), is a herbaceous perennial endemic to North America, Europe (particularly Northern Europe) and Asia, belonging to the family Urticaceae. While the fine hairs or ‘trichomes’ on the leaves inject histamines into the skin acting as an irritant, they can still be utilised for a number of culinary and medicinal purposes if handled and prepared in the correct manner.
The name ‘nettle’ descends directly from Old English, ‘netele’ or ‘netel’, although the name ‘stīðe’ may also have been used for both lamb’s cress and nettle interchangeably.’ Netele’ appears twice in Lacnunga, twice in the Herbarium, and once in Bald’s Leechbook, while ‘stīðe’ appears once in Lacnunga.
One well-known charm in which nettle appears is The Nine Herbs Charm, found in the Lacnunga Manuscript (79). Nettle is one of the nine herbs worked by Wōden as a cure for poison, in tandem with the leech.
“it is called nettle, it attacks against poison. “
In Lacnunga (82), nettle appears alongside mugwort, waybread, lamb’s cress, attorlothe, maythe, wood sourapple, chervil, fennel and old soap as ingredients for a salve to be applied to wounds, while a charm is sung into the patient’s mouth, ears and onto the wound itself.
In Lacnunga (154), nettle is listed as one of the ingredients in a remedy for inflammation. Traditional folk medicines, such as Austrian folk medicine, also utilize nettle for similar inflammatory issues, such as gout and rheumatism.
In the Herbarium (116), nettle seeds are listed alongside hemp or ‘cannane silfatica’, as a means to cool a burn.
“For cooling of a burn take this same plant’s fruit pounded with nettle seeds, moistened with vinegar, lay it onto the pain.”
In Herbarium (178), seven different ailments are given, which could be treated with the use of nettle. The nettle’s ‘juice’ was applied to a ‘chilled wound’ , mixed with oil dregs and salt, and the same salve could be applied to an area of the body to reduce swelling. Wounds (possibly bruising?) caused by a strike or blow, were also treated with nettle juice, as was pain of the limbs, caused by injury or cold. For a ‘foul or rotten’ wound, nettle and salt were applied, ‘for a woman’s flux’, nettle was pounded with honey and applied to the genitals with a piece of wet wool and for coldness of body, nettle was applied with oil to warm the skin.
In Bald’s Leechbook (7), nettle, ox’s gall and vinegar are used to create a paste that was said to halt neck and thigh pain.
“For neck pain boil the lower part of the nettle in ox’s grease and in butter, then smear the thigh for neck pain, and if the thigh should be painful smear the neck with the salve. Again, boil the lower part of the nettle in vinegar, put ox’s gall in the vinegar and take the plant out, smear the neck with it. “
While stinging nettle was a medicinally important plant to the Anglo-Saxons, it also served a variety of functions outside the realm of medicine. Nettle also had culinary uses. It was employed as a tisane, added to soups, brewed in beer and made into a porridge. Because nettle grew in such abundance and without human interference, it also made excellent and readily available livestock feed. It was also added to livestock feed in order to cure anemia and other illnesses. The fibres from nettle could be spun like flax, and a number of Bronze Age burial shrouds from Denmark were woven from nettle fibres, suggesting its importance to the cultural antecedents to the Anglo-Saxons. Nettle was even used by the German soldiers during World War I due to shortages in cotton.
Not only was nettle a popular herbal remedy in England, but it was used extensively by the Greeks for medicinal purposes as well. Galen, in his work De Simplicibus, suggests the use of stinging nettle for a large host of afflictions. It was utilised as a diuretic, a laxative, applied to canine bites, applied to gangrenous wounds, used to prevent immoderate menstruation, used to treat diseases of the spleen, pneumonia, sores, asthma and many other ailments. It was also listed in Herbarium of Apuleius, a work most-likely known and used by the Saxons, as a cure for shock.
A process known as urtification, where the skin is intentionally stung by the nettle’s trichomes, is said to have been conducted by the Romans as a means to keep warm during campaigns, soothe tired joints and improve circulation. The theory is, that the irritant may trick the nervous system into ‘overlooking’ the deeper tissue pain. Also, the chemicals injected into the skin which cause inflammation, may trigger the body to release its own anti-inflammatory chemicals in turn, which could explain its efficacy.
It’s unsurprising that nettle would be cited as a cure for so many maladies, considering how rich in tannins, vitamins C and A and chlorophyll the leaves are. The tisane brewed from the leaves is said to aid coagulation and the formation of hemoglobin, due to their high iron content. Nettle tea also stimulates urination, which is beneficial for the treatment of urinary illnesses and the Ojibwe used nettle root tea as a diuretic for much the same reason.
The nettle shoots and leaves can be eaten raw or boiled in a stew or soup. If consumed raw, the trichomes must first be rubbed off, so as not to sting the mouth. Nettle juice or tea produces rennet, which is used in the production of cheeses and the roots can be cooked and consumed similarly to other starchy root vegetables. Today, nettle root is also employed as a therapeutic remedy for enlarged prostate.
Stephen Pollington, Leechcraft: Early English Charms Plantlore and Healing
Lone Pine Publishing, Edible & Medicinal Plants of Canada