Two Burning Houses: A Natural History of Stinging Nettle
I clearly remember my introduction to the mystery and power of stinging nettle. On a late summer day, I found myself, alongside my graduate cohort, at the Northwest Indian College. Located on the Lummi Indian Reservation in Bellingham, Washington, the college caters exclusively to tribal members across the country and includes a number of programs focused on traditional skills and knowledge. Through their Traditional Plants and Foods program, instructors educate students on native medicine and healing foods. Vanessa Cooper, the program coordinator, spoke to us at length about the healing power of several native plants. I will never forget the transformation of Vanessa’s face when her talk turned to nettle. She became deeply serene and her eyes half-closed as she murmured, “Oh, I just love nettle. She reminds us to pay attention.”
What was it about this much-maligned plant that inspired such reverence in her? What power did this plant hold? I needed to find out.
Though cursed by hikers, gardeners, and homeowners alike, stinging nettle is a nutritional powerhouse, a potent medicine and endlessly useful. Its praises have been sung across the globe and nettle appears in many fables and myths, as well as European, Asian, and American history. It would be impossible to describe each use of this plant in detail, as well as go into the history of its use in indigenous North America. This is merely a glimpse into the full power of nettle.
Stinging nettle, or Urtica dioica, is a flowering plant that is found worldwide. It is native to northern Africa, North America, Asia, and Europe. Here in the United States, it is found in every state except Hawaii, though it grows most abundantly in areas with high annual rainfall. Nettle prefers nitrogen-rich soil and is commonly found in the understory of riparian areas, along the edges of meadows, in open, rich forests, and in soil where animal or human waste is present (“Plant Data Sheet,” n.d.). Nettle is deciduous, re-growing in the summer to a height of 3 to 7 feet from its deep and widespread rhizomes. Nettle, unlike many other plants, tends to produce only male or female flowers throughout each plant, thus giving it its name dioica, meaning “two houses.” The pollen-producing flowers, which bloom mid-summer, open suddenly, causing the anthers to spring open and release pollen. As such, stinging nettle is specifically adapted for wind fertilization (Grieve, 1971).
Stinging nettle is, of course, most well known for its sting. Many members of the Urticaceae family also possess this stinging mechanism, which comes from hollow stinging hairs called trichomes that cover the stem as well as the undersides of nettle leaves. These trichomes break upon contact with humans or animals, revealing an internal sharp point. Once this sharp point makes contact with skin, it injects a combination of chemicals subcutaneously that produce the stinging sensation (“Burning and Stinging,” 2008). These chemicals include histamine, acetylcholine, serotonin, and formic acid (“Stinging Nettles,” n.d.). There are many purported antidotes to the sting of nettle. Quite amusingly, the juice of the plant’s own leaves will heal its sting. The juice of dock leaf, or Rumex obtusifolius, which often grows in close proximity to nettle, is also said to alleviate the pain.
The myriad medicinal benefits of stinging nettle have been widely documented. It is, like many other dark leafy greens, high in iron and protein. It also has one of the highest chlorophyll contents of any plant and is high in vitamins A, B1, B2, C, and K, as well as copper, manganese and calcium. It is described as being “an astringent, diuretic, tonic, anodyne, pectoral, rubefacient, styptic, anthelmintic, nutritive, alterative, hemetic, anti-rheumatic, anti-allergenic, anti-lithic/lithotriptic, haemostatic, stimulant, decongestant, herpatic, febrifuge, kidney depurative/nephritic, galactagogue, hypoglycemic, expectorant, anti-spasmodic, and anti-histamine” (Vance, n.d.).
Nettle is used globally to combat a wide range of afflictions. It is extremely helpful for respiratory ailments and may be consumed or inhaled as a decongestant, and to treat the symptoms of hay fever, asthma, and seasonal allergies. The high iron content in stinging nettle combats anemia and lethargy, and makes it a wonderful plant for women as it can ease menstrual cramps and prevent heavy bleeding during menstruation. The plant also has many benefits for expectant mothers. It guards against excessive bleeding, eases labor pains, and improves lactation. It is also a common prescription for kidney disorders, aids in the dissolving of kidney stones, encourages blood clotting, dilates the capillaries, and stimulates blood circulation. These clotting and circulation effects make it an excellent plant for treating bruises, cuts, and inflammation.
Nettle also helps to rebalance the body by acting as a tonic for the liver, blood and kidneys by balancing blood pH and safely flushing waste from the body (Krohn, 2007). It is also a common prescription for kidney disorders, aids in the dissolving of kidney stones, encourages blood clotting, dilates the capillaries, and stimulates blood circulation. These clotting and circulation effects make it an excellent plant for treating bruises, cuts, and inflammation.
The sting of the nettle, though painful, also produces beneficial results. The combination of acetylcholine and formic acid produce an improvement of cellular responses, capillary stimulation, and lymph flow. These reactions are said to reduce inflammation, speed healing, and improve circulation (Krohn, 2007). The sting has also been used for thousands of years as a treatment for rheumatism and arthritis (Jones, 1994).
Records indicating the use of nettle are plentiful throughout European and Asian history. Widespread use is recorded as far back as the Late Bronze Age, or between 1570 and 1200 BCE, and continues today. One early example is the story of Julius Caesar’s troops rubbing themselves with nettles, relying on the stings to keep them awake and alert during long and difficult northern campaigns between 58 and 45 BCE (Schneider, 2004).
The most common use of nettle in European history, by far, is as a textile. By drying and pounding the stalks of nettle, it is possible to extract fibers that may be twisted into robe or used to produce cloth. The production of nettle fabric began around the Late Bronze Age, if not earlier (Jones, 1994). The fabric is reported to be quite similar to flax or hemp, and could made into a variety of textures, from silky and fine to coarse and thick (Jones, 1994). An added benefit to this fabric is that it could be bleached and dyed in the same way as cotton textiles. As early as the 16th and 17th centuries, nettle fabric was the textile of choice for Scottish household linens. During much of the early 20th century, Germany made good use of nettle fibers. Germans discovered that nettle fiber, mixed with 10 percent cotton, made excellent underclothes, fabric, stockings, and tarps. Fishing nets during this time were also largely constructed from nettle twine.
France used nettle extensively in their production of paper, among many other items. French cheese-makers also discovered that a nettle leaf decoction would curdle milk and produce an excellent substitute for rennet. Of course, nettle has also been enjoyed in a culinary capacity for hundreds of years. The young leaves appear in many recipes from salads and soups to cordials and beer.
Indigenous peoples have enjoyed a strong relationship with the stinging nettle plant since time immemorial. Many tribes including the Winnebago, Coastal Salish, Omaha, Cupeño, Menominee, and Subarctic peoples wove nettle clothing, using it for undershirts, robes, cloaks, and ponchos (Pritzker, 2000). Several tribes also used in it in the construction of their fishing nets. This list of Native American uses for nettle, however, is extensive. Nettle has been used as food, medicine, clothing, and in ceremonial practice. Many tribes enjoy fresh nettle leaves or a nettle tonic in the spring, using it to purify the blood and the liver. Pregnant woman also commonly use the plant: it guards against extensive bleeding during childbirth, eases labor pains, and strengthens both the uterus and the fetus (Schneider, 2004). Nettle’s use as a styptic is not limited to pregnant women. The ability of the plant to stop bleeding makes it a popular choice for wound management. Wounds can be coated with dried, powdered nettle or wrapped in fresh leaves that had been lightly pounded in order to increase their medicinal benefits (Shimer, 2004).
One of the most well-recorded uses of stinging nettle, stretching back over 2,000 years, is urtication. Employed by indigenous tribes and many countries worldwide, it involved beating ones limbs with stalks of stinging nettle. To practitioners, it serves as a cure for painful, arthritic joints. There are conflicting opinions about the true benefit of this practice. Some argue that the sting merely provides a distraction from the pain of arthritis. However, others point to the injection of histamine by the nettle plant. Once histamine is injected into the body, an anti-histamine reaction occurs, with the body attempting to draw down the inflammation. It is thought that perhaps this reaction by the body also serves to reduce arthritic swelling. Warriors and hunters of many clans also used the sting of the nettle to keep themselves alert during battle or the hunt (Krohn, 2007).
There are also several documented ceremonial uses of stinging nettle. Several Nevada tribes, for example, burned nettle leaves in sweat lodges. This served two purposes: to act as an offering, and also to treat pneumonia and the flu (Hatfield, 2004). In addition to being a potent medicine, the Kawaiisu associated nettle with powerful dreams. If individuals wished to have medicine dreams they would walk barefoot through fields of nettle to prepare themselves to enter the dream world (D’Azavedo & Sturtevant, 1986).
Stinging nettle also appears in indigenous folklore, often being associated with coyote, suggesting that nettle is the trickster of the plant world. Nettle folktales also remind the listeners of man’s foolish decision to label the plant as a weed. A Cree legend illustrates this and echoes Vanessa’s sentiments on that summer afternoon at Northwest Indian College.
Masan [stinging nettle] was once golden with shimmering leaves and a bright aura. The human beings did not pay their respect to this plant medicine, taking it for granted, passing it by without offering tobacco. In time it turned color to blend in with the other plants and grew stinging hairs to catch the human beings by surprise and sting them. That made us pay respect. (Keane, 2005)
Even after conducting research, creating my own products, and consuming large quantities of tea and fresh leaves, I have only barely scratched the surface of available information about stinging nettle. It is impossible to learn of the seemingly endless uses for nettle and not subsequently wonder about the other plants we ignore because we deem them to be weeds. How strange that society has largely abandoned stinging nettle as a textile, a medicine, a food source, and a component of ceremony. Ignoring the rich history of global usage, we lament the presence of nettle in our gardens and carefully avoid it whenever encountered.
The field of ethnobotany is fraught with frustration. It would be possible to devote one’s entire career to studying just one plant, let alone to gain a working knowledge of many uses for several plants native to one’s geographical location. At the end of the project, I want to know so much more. I would like to improve upon the products I made, to try new recipes, and to learn about other plants that I might previously have considered a nuisance. The bounty of the plant world is limitless and I conclude this research with a commitment to learn and embrace the gifts of the natural world.
*Header photo from hatchmag.com.