Stinging nettle or common nettle, Urtica dioica, is a herbaceous perennial flowering plant, native to Europe, Asia, northern Africa, and North America, and is the best-known member of the nettle genus Urtica. The species is divided into six subspecies, five of which have many hollow stinging hairs called trichomes on the leaves and stems, which act like hypodermic needles, injecting histamine and other chemicals that produce a stinging sensation when contacted by humans and other animals. The plant has a long history of use as a medicine and as a food source.
There is a telling of the Norse God, Thor that after arranging some bones
on goatskin before a cooking fire, that He returns the animals to life by raising his hammer, Mjollnir, over the bones and blessing them. I perceive this revivifying action as a metaphor for urtication and suggest that this is why nettle is sacred to the Thunder God. Indeed, the Norse believed that when Thorr flung Mjollnir across the sky, lightning flashed. Certainly a nettle thrashing is a “fiery” experience! Further, in Holland, young boys would go out early in the morning to gather bunches of nettles to tie to the doors of the village houses. Grimm notes that this was done on the “Zaterdag before Pentecost”, suggesting that it was a Heathen fertility custom which survived the conversion—perhaps an ancient remnant of flogging (birch branches were used likewise in the saunas to bring blood to the surface).
It should also be noted that Thorr was a god of fertility of both Earth and womb. Bunches of fresh Nettles were also laid across vats of beer to prevent thunder from turning and spoiling the beer. Young nettles were boiled and eaten with meat on Grün-donnerstag (Maundy Thursday). Depending on the author in secondary sources, stinging nettle was called Wergulu or Stithe in the Nine Herbs Charm, which was a charm used by Odhinn for protection against the “flying venom”(one of four causes of disease in Teutonic etiology). The Anglo-Saxons used purple dead-nettle in butter based eyesalves and “holy salves” against disease; red nettle was used in salves against rash or “elf-shot”, another cause of disease within this etiology (note that many of these texts were written prior to the establishment of the binomial nomenclature developed by Linnaeus; so identification of herbs based on folknames is imprecise at best).
Edibility: This is a highly nutritious plant, high in iron, calcium, potassium,
vitamins A, C and D. When cooked, the harmful ingredients are neutralized and the plant can be treated like a spinach for spring greens or used for tea. Young plants prior to blooming should be used as older ones become fibrous (see below) and after blooming the leaves develop cystoliths which irritate the urinary tract if eaten in large amounts. Nettles were widespread as a foodstuff. Sir Walter Scott discusses them in Rob Roy, Pepys refers in his diary of 1661 to eating Nettle Porridge which he thought to be very good. Victor Hugo included some discourse on Nettle usage in “Les Miserables”. Grieve gives recipes for Nettle Pudding and Nettle Beer. ( I will share a recipe with you for this further down!)
Medicinal: As species of Urtica (such as Urtica dioica) grow worldwide, there is considerable old literature as to folk and medicinal use. There are 17th century Russian tracts on its use. The most common medicinal use was as a diuretic, an astringent and a tonic. It is also a styptic – something which checks the flow of blood from the surface (acting very quickly); by the use of powdered root or softened and bruised leaves, Nettle has few equals in that regard. It was recommended for nosebleed that a small piece of fine cloth be moistened with Nettle juice and placed in the nostril. Several references list a use of the fresh leaves or stems as a “counter-irritant”, that is, it is applied to the skin where there is another painful irritation such as arthritis. The best explanation for that effect is that the nettle sting took ones mind off the other pain. However, the juice of the Nettle is a complete antidote for its own sting. Likewise, the juice of Dock, particularly Yellow (Curly) Dock, has the same effect. Grieve reports on the old English Saying “Nettle in, dock out. dock rub nettle out”. Densmore reports its use among the Minnesota
Chippewa for dysentery and for stoppage of urine.
There are many references to Nettle preparations involving the seeds and the flesh of the plant for a hair tonic – i.e. “restorer”; so many references that one could assume one might have had some success with it prior to today’s preparations. The presence of formic acid, mineral salts and carbonic acid was the key.
Practical Uses: Besides beer as mentioned above, the most practical use for Nettle is as a substitute for Cotton. The fiber of Nettle is similar to Hemp and Flax and thus it can be used for making cloth, sacking, cordage, etc. Nettle produces less fiber than Flax. It’s fibers varying from 3/4” to 2 1/2”. The upper sizes equal the best Egyptian Cotton. Plants that grow in good loam, such as near ditches and other moist sources produce the best fiber. Nettle is so effective for making cloth that when Germany and Austria were short of Cotton in 1916 – 1918 during the Great War they resorted to collecting huge quantities of Nettle. In 1916 alone 2.7 million kilograms were collected for cloth production. In 1917 The British analyzed some German overalls and found they were made of 85% nettle. It does not take dye the way wool does because of its microscopic structure, but there is nothing else close to it for making cloth when you are short of Cotton.
Hans C. Andersen refers to coats being woven of Nettle in the story, “The Princess and the Eleven Swans.” As does Juliet Marillier in her interpretation of the same tale, “Daughter of the Forest.”
If humans can like to eat them, so can the animals. The plant makes great fodder once it has been allowed to wilt and begin to dry. Then the stinging effects have dissipated (although in some species dissipation is not complete). While a number of insects may feed on the plant, it is distasteful to flies and a bunch of Nettle near foodstuffs can keep flies away. It is also an important host to a number of butterflies. A decoction of Nettle produces a permanent green dye – widely used in old Russia.
Alright! So! On with the BEER!!!
A refreshing Spring or early Summer Country Drink which can be enjoyed after three weeks.
What you’ll need
1.0 kg of nettle tops (approx. 50 nettle tops with 4/6 leaves)
450gms of brown sugar
1 gallon (4.5 litres) water
25gms Cream of Tartar
6gms of beer brewing yeast
How to make Nettle Beer
- Wash the nettle tops to clean off any insects and dust.
- Put in large pan and add 4.5 litres of water.
- Bring to the boil and then simmer for 30 minutes.
- Strain into a food grade plastic bin and add the brown sugar, lemon juice and rind (not the white pith), and cream of tartar. The brown sugar adds a little colour to the beer.
- Stir well and allow to cool to about 20 to 25 degC. Then sprinkle the yeast over the surface and cover with a cloth.
- Leave in a warm place for between 5 to 6 days to allow the fermentation to take place. If a scum forms after 2 or 3 days it can be removed. A hydrometer can be used to check that the process has finished. The SG reading should be approximately 1.000.
- Strain again through a fine mesh bag or muslin so that it’s ready for bottling.
- Using clean strong swing top bottles or similar, add half a teaspoon
of sugar to each bottle and then syphon the beer into bottles. You should have enough for 8 pint bottles or 9 bottles 500ml size.
- Leave the bottles in a warm place for 2 days and then move to somewhere cooler to allow the beer to clear.
- Nettle beer doesn’t have a long life, so once the beer has settled it is ready to drink in about 2 weeks.
- Enjoy! Try it with a little bread and cheese as they did in the old days!