Leather gauntlets are required when handling the stinging nettles grown in Bonnefont garden. The nettles grow in the middle of a raised bed, where visitors won’t brush against them inadvertently, and are caged with willow and labeled as an additional safeguard (see full image). Photographs by Corey Eilhardt
But this little patch which lies facing east
In the small open courtyard before my door
Was full — of nettles! All over
My small piece of land they grew, their barbs
Tipped with a spear of tingling poison.
What should I do? So thick were the ranks
That grew from the tangle of roots below,
They were like the green hurdles a stableman skillfully
Weaves of pliant osiers when the horses hooves
Rot in the standing puddles and go soft as fungus.
So I put it off no longer. I set to with my mattock
And dug up the sluggish ground. From their embraces
I tore those nettles though they grew and grew again.
—From Hortulus by Walahfrid Strabo. Translated from the Latin by Raef Payne. The Hunt Botanical Library, 1966.
The stinging nettles in Walahfrid’s monastery garden were clearly unwanted, but Urtica dioica is carefully cultivated in Bonnefont Cloister garden. A common perennial weed of moist soil and disturbed ground, stinging nettle is widely distributed throughout Europe, Asia, and North America, having crossed the ocean with the earliest English settlers. (See the U.S.D.A. database for more information). Nettles thrive on the phosphates that are a product of human habitation and animal husbandry, and are often found near long-abandoned settlements and waste dumps.
The nettle is provided with stinging hairs as a defense against people and animals. These hollow hairs have a structure that resembles a hypodermic needle; when the tips of the hairs are broken by contact, the toxin stored at the base of the hair is pumped into the skin of the intruder. This chemical irritant, which contains formic acid, results in a painful rash as well as a stinging sensation. Aesop’s now proverbial injunction to deal with nettles by grasping them firmly is a strategy for suppressing the hypodermic action. Folk remedies for nettle sting include the application of the crushed leaf of the broad-leaved dock (Rumex obtusifolius), a fellow inhabitant of waste places which is said to grow wherever nettles are found. We arm ourselves with leather gauntlets when handling nettles at The Cloisters; although we grow several edible species of Rumex here, we have no broad-leaved dock. Non-herbal treatments include antihistamines, or topical creams including hydrocortisone.
Our long-time garden volunteer, Nuala Outes, is an old hand with nettles, having become very familiar with them in her Irish childhood; at age 7, Nuala was tossed by a cow into a nettle patch. Photograph by Corey Eilhardt
The nettle has a long relationship with humankind, and has been exploited as a fiber, a food plant, and a medicine. Cloth woven from nettle is stronger than the linen made from the stems of flax; remnants survive from the Bronze Age, and the fabric was still produced in both Scotland and Denmark in the eighteenth century. Nettles were developed and investigated as an alternative to cotton in Germany during World War II, and have once again come under serious consideration as an economic resource. (Read more about the current development of nettle as a renewable resource and alternative fiber crop in the U.K. on the STING (Sustainable Technology In Nettle Growing) Web page published by De Montfort University, Leicester.)
An ancient foodstuff as well as a fiber, the young shoots and tender tops of the nettle have been gathered from the wild as a nutritious spring green for many centuries and in many countries. In her famous work on health and healing, Physica, the twelfth-century Benedictine abbess Hildegard of Bingen acknowledges that fresh nettles curdle milk, but recommends that the dried root be added to milk drunk in winter, to counter any bad humors. She considers nettles to be too hot and harsh in nature to be eaten raw, but deems newly sprouted shoots to be a beneficial food when cooked. (For more on Hildegard, see “Mutter Natur,” October 15, 2010.)
Nettles have been used as a vegetable rennet in cheese making, and nettle soup, pottages made from nettles boiled with oatmeal or barley, and even nettle beer are all traditional dishes still enjoyed in Ireland and the United Kingdom. (For more on medieval pottage, see Corey Eilhardt’s post “Weed Eating, Friday October 29, 2010.)
The fifteenth-century Herbarius Latinus lists a wide range of medicinal applications for Urtica dioica: nettles in barley water cleared the chest of phlegm; nettles in wine were an aphrodisiac. The ash of nettles could be mixed with salt and used to treat dog bites and ulcerations, the powdered seed could be snuffed up to stop a nosebleed and open the sinuses, and an oil pressed from the seeds formed an unguent for paralyzed limbs.
This common weed of worldwide distribution has a prominent place in European folklore and folk medicine , but I leave that for another post.
Anderson, Frank J., ed. “Herbals through 1500,” The Illustrated Bartsch, Vol. 90. New York: Abaris, 1984.
Davidson, Alan. The Oxford Companion to Food. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Grieve, Maude. A Modern Herbal. 1931. Reprint: New York: Dover Publications, 1971.
Griffiths, Mark. The New Royal Horticultural Society Index of Garden Plants. Portland, OR: Timber Press, 1992.
Grigson, Geoffrey. The Englishman’s Flora. 1955. Reprint: London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1987.
Mabey, Richard. Flora Brittanica. London: Chatto & Windus, 1996.
Throop, Priscilla, transl. Hildegard von Bingens Physica: The Complete English Translation of Her Classic Work on Health and Healing. Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press, 1998.