As we near the spring Equinox and the pagan holiday Ostara the nettles beckon me from the field behind my home.
Ostara, or spring equinox, is the holiday celebrating birth and renewal as the sun warms the earth and coaxes the plants upward towards the sun to receive nourishment. Out of the dark, rich, black soil sprouts new life. Like the verdant green of new spring nettles (latin, Urtica dioica, or Urtica urens).
HISTORY, MAGIC & LORE
Since at least the Bronze age, nettles have provided people with fibre for weaving cloth, linen and paper. It makes such strong fibre that tombs exhumed 2,000 years later found clothing made from nettle still intact. This speaks to the strength and power of nettle to weave health and resiliency into our very cells. Some say the name “nettle” comes from the Anglo-saxon word Netel which may come from the word noedl meaning needle – as in the sharp prickles that give this green ally its sting. I think of it more as the exacting and awakening touch of nature’s powerful witch doctor, Nettle, who can revive tired, sick, or weary souls.
Nettle has long been associated with protection. Just try to mindlessly grab a fistful of nettle – and ouch! She teaches you boundaries. The plant has a powerful innate protective mechanism to keep invaders away. The sting (caused by formic acid) wakes you up, slows you down, to approach and harvest mindfully. In the Hans Christian Anderson story The Twelve Wild Swans the protective cloaks the princess made for her eleven brothers were spun from nettle fibres.
Hang bundles of nettle around your home, from your clothing, or strewn in your car for protection. Gather bundles of nettle to use in ritual or spellwork to create boundaries, activate and add fuel to starting something new. The energies of the planet mars guides this herb.
In Germany nettles were associated with Thor, the God of thunder. During thunderstorms or wild weather travellers threw bundles of nettle into the fire as an offering to Thor praying for protection against lightning. In medieval Ireland nettle was known as the Devil’s Apron. It’s said the Roman invaders brought nettle to the lands we now call Briton to rub this plant on their joints to keep the chill from giving them rheumatism. The Roman writer Caius Petronius said that a man’s virility was improved if he was whipped with nettle below the kidneys.
A PERSONAL STORY
When I was in the Andes mountains of Ecuador in 2013 I met an indigenous woman who offered to give me a cleansing. I followed her as she went to gather her herbs behind her hut. I had no idea what to expect. Out she came with long stems of green herbs, I recognized mint, lemonbalm and….nettles. Nettles?! She told me to remove all my clothes. I thought perhaps I’d climb into a bath and to soak with these herbs. But no, once the clothes were off she whipped (sort of gently) me head to toe with the herbs for a solid 5 minutes (by the way, her bundle was mostly nettles. 5 minutes is a long time!). As you might imagine my entire body was buzzing with heat and prickles, I grew warmer and warmer, and frankly it was mind-altering. After the five minutes she covered me with egg, and murmured blessings for my heart, my ancestors, and the future that lies before me. It was beautiful.
I left her hut about 30 minutes later, and felt fantastic. I kept waiting for the dreaded nettles rash to appear. No rash. No irritations. Just warm, alive, and blood pumping. It felt great to have good circulation! About 2 hours later I had no symptoms of the nettles sting which I found interesting because as any of you who’ve harvested this herb know, the sting can last for days if you touch her the wrong way.
FOR BODY & BLOOD
Nettles are used to feed and nourish the body with their abundant mineral, vitamin, and amino acid content. They are also used to feed and nourish the body of the earth – making an incredible green manure or compost tea for the gardens.
Therapeutically nettle is great for those with anemia as it improves iron absorption, improves circulation, reduces uric acid for those who suffer from gout, it’s great for those with arthritis, and is used for a wide variety of skin conditions from acne to eczema. I love it for folks who are exhausted, depleted, or have suffered adrenal burn-out. It’s a great tonic for pregnancy (it’s so nutrient rich) and new mothers (increases breast milk). Personally I find it helps to balance blood sugar levels and decrease sugar cravings. it’s also great to counter hay fever, allergies, and it’s useful for those with asthma.
To really reap the benefits of nettle for any of the above mentioned therapeutic uses, you really have to consume it over a long period of time – months especially for anemia, asthma, skin issues, and hay fever – and daily or multiple times a week. Overtime, I’ve noticed it improves the quality of skin, hair and nails.
This herb is a food. Our bodies know how to use the nutrients because we’ve co-evolved with plants. We are evolutionary familiar with one another. Nettles, like many green herbs that are suitable as food, are easy to digest, assimilate. I think of nettle as an ally that cleans up our inner waterways: the lymph, blood, kidneys, bladder.
I find the spirit of this plant presents itself to me as a firm, ferocious crone as strong and tough like the fibres of the plant. Nettle medicine goes deep, breaking up stagnation and removing old, dead waste from our bodies (yes it alleviates constipation too). As Susun Weed says, nettle “cuts loose old patterns and re-weaves connections.” Yes indeed.
So eat, drink, and make magic with this green ally.
HOW TO USE NETTLE FOR FOOD & MEDICINE
When possible, I prefer to use my herbs as food first.
My favourite way is to steam fresh nettles and eat them daily. Cut the top third of the plant, stem and all, into a gathering basket and place in your steamer once you get home. Steam / sauté them for about 5 minutes. The sting goes away after about that length of time. Use them every which way you use spinach.
The ideas are endless:
blended into hummus or dips
grind finely and add to salt
grind and add to sesame seed gomasio
I also grind it finely and had a scoop to soups, smoothies or stews to up the nutritional content.
. Check out what the women at Gather have done with nettles here devilled eggs! I’d love to hear how you use them in the comments below.
I love to make soups with nettle. Instead of broccoli or spinach soup – use nettles. One of my all-time favourites is mushroom – nettle soup. It’s very basic: onions, garlic, brown mushrooms, broth, and nettles. I find blending the soups once they are done makes for a deeper flavour. Soooo good! Using nettle in soups means it’s easy to freeze large batches and have this nourishing herb through the seasons.
Juice nettles: If you have the kind of juicer that can juice wheatgrass, then juice nettles. I store the juice in ice cube trays. Then I add a cube to water when it’s not nettle season (summer & winter) when I crave the deep green to sink into my cells – when I’m exhausted, drained, or anemic.
Infusion with the dried herb – dry your own nettles (or you can buy them from quality herb shops) and prepare a medicinal infusion. Many herbalists view teas as basically flavoured beverages and find them not very medicinal (though they can be slightly depending on the quality of the herbs) but an infusion is a very strong therapeutic brew. Prepare a nettle infusion by weighing out 25g of dried nettle and place the herb in 500ml of boiled water. Steep for 1 hour or even over night. Strain and enjoy your vitamin – mineral drink!
Tincture – You can make your own nettle tincture by blending the fresh leaves or ripening seeds with 95% alcohol at a 1:5 ratio. However, my preference is to use nettle as explained above – as food or water extracts (infusions).
Syrup – There are countless recipes for Iron Syrups out there that include nettle as a primary ingredient. Check out this recipe here. A basic syrup is essentially a strong infusion or decoction of a herb, with a sweetener added for flavour and preservation.
In conclusion, when using nettles for medicine – use them as food first. Your use doesn’t have to be complicated or elaborate. In fact, what I love, and advocate for, is the use of herbs so they are inexpensive and accessible. So go simple. Steam them. Drink them. Period. If you are experienced with herbs and wild food, then go wild and creative if that inspires you. Too often I meet students or patients who shy away from using these wild medicines because they are intimidated, they think it requires special tools or skills to use them. Nope. Steam, eat, drink.
So this spring, a season of transition, may nettles guide you to re-weave new ways of connecting to your own health and the spirited force that connects all of life.