O Nettle, Where Is Thy Sting?
By Kiva Rose
Heading towards our favorite patch of watercress, my five-year-old daughter Rhiannon and I amble barefoot through the Gila's rich riparian woodland. Migrating songbirds are trilling away in the branches of the taller trees and the late autumn air is full of the smells of fallen leaves and damp earth after the previous night's rainfall. Rhiannon walks close behind, occasionally asking the name of birds along the way. In my eagerness to identify each bird for her, I forget to watch what I'm stepping on—until I'm greeted with a series of razor-like stings on my left foot.
Giving an involuntary yelp, I quickly back up to stare reproachfully at the ground ahead. Rhiannon watches me, amused but sympathetic. "Mama," she says with exaggerated seriousness, "that's what happens when you don't pay attention to the nettles"—she points one small finger at me—"they have to remind you."
Nettles are indeed an effective if unpleasant reminder to be aware and awake at all times. Crouching down to get a closer look at the small nettles among the leaf litter, we admire the star-shaped hairs extending from stem and leaf. A beautiful if somewhat ungainly plant, it's one of my favorite plant friends despite, or perhaps because of, its burning touch.
Appropriately enough, nettle's botanical name Urtica means "to burn." And burn it does when we fail to be aware enough to see it. But its gifts, including such hard-learned awareness, are more than fair compensation for the occasional painful encounter. It often seems to take a sting or two to wake us fully into our animal senses, a slight burn to help us fully inhabit our bodies. We evolved our finely tuned awareness in order to survive, and while most of us no longer need to listen for the slightest sound in order to hunt our dinner or secure our safety, we still need every bit of sensory awareness we possess in order to fully experience the sensations of intense and meaningful life—including pleasure. And, like most hard lessons in life, the cure comes from the same source as the sting: Simply squeeze a few drops of juice from a thick stem onto the affected area, and the pain will soon subside.
Within those vivid green leaves, nettle contains almost every vitamin and mineral needed to keep the human body healthy and alive. This was a fact well understood by Medieval monks, who lived almost entirely off of nettle greens, tea and broth. Nettles are high in protein (providing more even than beans), iron, potassium, zinc, sulphur, vitamin A, niacin, selenium and vitamins B complex, C, D , K and many other invaluable nutrients. Even the source of nettle's fierce sting, formic acid, is beneficial under the correct circumstances, making nettle an excellent hair rinse for those with thinning, fine or easily broken hair.
Nettle is wonderful as tea, as a cooked green or as soup. Rhiannon loves nettles mixed in with her potato soup, and frequently prods me to take her on long walks to carefully gather a quantity for the evening supper. I have often heard nettle greens compared to spinach, but I find this to be a woefully inadequate description. They have a rich taste reminiscent in some ways of the pungent, salty sea as well as the deep richness of earth. The taste is smooth and green, without any of the peculiar aftertastes some other greens have.
Nettle has been utilized throughout Europe, North America and many other parts of the world. It grows prolifically wherever even the slightest bit of water and just a little shade are available. In New Mexico, I look for nettle under the cool cover of mature junipers or box-elders in the general vicinity of year-round water.
Harvesting nettles may seem like a daunting and even dangerous task, but with a pair of leather gloves and a sharp set of clippers, we can quickly and easily harvest basketfuls of nettles. The best time to harvest them is late spring, before it flowers, when the leaves are still juicy and filled with nutrients and energy. In our sunny climate nettle will grow all winter long, so look for its new green tops in late fall as well.
Nettle is like any other green, in that once boiled it rapidly shrinks down to a fraction of its fresh size. Be sure to gather lots of nettle for your soups and other dishes. Any extra can be dried for later use in teas and infusions.
Medicinally, nettles can be used to treat painful rheumatism and arthritis as well as all kinds of joint pain, sprains and strains. Because of its high mineral and vitamin content, it makes a wonderful remedy for anemia and general vitamin deficiency. A powerful herb for the adrenal systems, it can also be used to treat urinary-tract infections, kidney stones, sluggish kidneys and most kidney-related dysfunction. Nettle is perhaps best known as a successful treatment for hay fever and sinus problems. This amazing and versatile plant can also be used to promote menstruation, to slow or stop bleeding from wounds or nosebleeds, to increase breast-milk production, to cool and support the liver and to purify the blood. The juice is excellent for soothing insect bites, stings, eczema or psoriasis.
Although all of these uses have been known for centuries by indigenous peoples and herbalists, most have only recently been scientifically confirmed by modern medicine. Nettle is safe enough to be used on a daily basis, and powerful enough to heal many conditions that most of us would normally think we needed to resort to a doctor for.
Nettle can be drunk in the form of an infusion as a general nutritive as well as to treat any of the above ailments. To make an infusion, place about a cup of dried nettle (available from your local herb store, woodland area or backyard) in a quart jar, then fill with boiling water. Cover and let sit for four to eight hours before straining; drink within 36 hours. Some of us like to add salt to the infusion and serve warm for a brothy taste; others prefer to add a pinch of peppermint and honey before sipping iced.
As an introduction to their healthy and nourishing potential, try adding a tasty cup or two of boiled nettle leaves to any of your favorite soups.
Be cautious when working with the fresh leaves. The formic acid is neutralized by boiling or drying, but up until that point it's very easy to be stung in a careless moment—whether handling them, or walking unawares as I did.
Kiva Rose is an author and poet known for her intuitive counsel. She and her partners tend "an enchanted riverside sanctuary," hosting comfy retreats, wilderness quests, the annual Wild Women’s Gathering and resident internships: email@example.com, PO Box 820, Reserve, NM 87830.