Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica/Urtica urens)
Ugly, untidy, invasive weeds - food for increasingly rare butterflies and moths - or valuable medicinal plants, depending on your viewpoint. Wherever people make a home, there will nettles grow.
They love a phosphate-rich soil - a type provided in abundance wherever, not to put too fine a point on it, an earth privy or midden has been a feature. In fact one way to tell if a site has been occupied in the past is to look for a nettle patch, which can persist for centuries after the site has been abandoned. In a medicinal sense, nettles are a veritable pharmacy in themselves, the different parts of the plant being used in a host of different ways.
The name 'nettle' might be derived from the Germanic 'noedl' (a needle) with reference to its sharp sting. However, there is the also the old word 'ne', which gave rise to words like 'net' and in German 'nähen' - to sew. In the Hans Anderson fairy tale 'The Princess and the Swans' the princess weaves coats made of nettle fibres for her eleven brothers. This is not as fanciful as it sounds. Before the general introduction of flax into northern countries, the Germanic tribes used nettles to weave a coarse cloth - a practice which survived in Scotland up to the seventeenth century. It was revived in Germany during the First World War, when cotton was in short supply: thousands of kilograms of nettles were collected to make uniforms for the soldiers. Even as late as the Second World War in England, nettles were used to make dye for camouflage nets.
The Latin name 'Urtica' derives from the word 'uro' - 'I burn' for obvious reasons. Nicholas Culpeper, the famous 17th century herbalist, commented of the nettle: 'they may be found by feeling in the darkest night'! Most of us have had the unpleasant experience of being stung by nettles (and have probably used the age-old cure, rubbing with a dock leaf). Nettle leaves are equipped with pin-sharp, hollow hairs which break easily on contact to release histamine and formic acid, irritating the skin and causing inflammation - the familiar white weals of 'nettle rash' or 'urticaria'. Strangely enough, one sure cure for nettle rash is to rub on fresh nettle juice, a remedy which John Wesley knew of and recommended in his book, Primitive Physick. Medical herbalists still use this treatment today, both externally and internally, in cases where a nettle like rash is caused by an allergy. Nettle juice or tea is also useful during the hay fever season, when it can help reduce the misery of streaming eyes and stuffed-up nose caused by the allergic reaction to pollen.
The Romans are credited with introducing one variety of nettle into England (Urtica pilulifera, occurring only in eastern counties). They are said to have used bunches of these nettles to flay arthritic joints - which probably played up in the cool, damp English winters, far away from their native southern Italy - and some accounts say it was done simply to keep warm! Although a pretty drastic cure, it probably worked by a process called 'counter-irritation'. This is the principle behind our own heating ointments for painful joints, the idea being to encourage blood flow to the affected part, which speeds up the inflammatory process. In fact, herbalists often prescribe nettle juice as part of their treatment of arthritic conditions, including gout. Nettles have a diuretic effect, and also help the body get rid of substances which build up and cause inflammation in the joints and tissues.
Nettles contain tannins, which when applied externally cause the edges of wounds to shrink towards one another. In ancient times people used wads of dried nettle leaves to stop a nosebleed. (Drying takes away the stinging effect!) The leaves of Nettle concentrate iron - at least when grown on iron-rich soil - and can help in iron deficiency anaemia if the fresh leaves are made into a soup and eaten regularly. The high Vitamin C content of the plant helps the iron to be absorbed. In Germany an extract of nettle was rubbed onto the head of people who had lost their hair due to illness - one acidic substance in the plant stimulates the hair follicles.
Nettles used to be used as fodder for dairy cattle because they stimulated the flow of milk. Nursing mothers might try nettle tea for a similar effect!
A relatively new discovery is the use of nettle roots to treat prostatitis. Almost all men undergo some enlargement of the prostate gland as they get older, which can lead to problems with passing water. Nettle roots have been found to contain a substance which helps moderate this enlargement, when taken regularly.
I have already mentioned the medicinal benefits of nettle soup. In fact young nettles make a delicate and delicious soup, thickened with potato or oatmeal and well seasoned. Make sure you wear stout gardening gloves - of course - and take only the succulent top few leaves from the new spring growth. Don't worry - cooking completely destroys the irritant substances in the leaves. From Norfolk comes a recipe for 'nettle pudding' made with boiled nettles, lemon juice and egg white, and another for a sort of beer, brewed with Galium aparine (Goosegrass or Cleavers), ginger, yeast and sugar.