As we near the spring Equinox and the pagan holiday Ostara the nettles beckon from the field behind my home.
Ostara, or spring equinox, is the holiday celebrating birth and renewal as the sun warms the earth. The sun coaxes the plants upward to receive nourishment. New life sprouts out of the dark, rich, soil. One of the first of these plants to germinate towards the warming spring sun is the verdant green nettle (Urtica dioica, or Urtica urens).
History, Magic, and Lore
Since at least the Bronze age, nettles have provided people with fibre for weaving cloth, linen and paper. Nettles make such a strong fibre, that excavation of 2000 year-old tombs has unearthed 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 it’s 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—ouch! She teaches you boundaries. This plant has a powerful, innate protective mechanism to keep invaders away. The sting (caused by formic acid) wakes you up, slows you down, and teaches 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. Tasked by a mysterious fairy, she gathered nettle from graveyards at night- indicating that Nettle has the power to reach back through ancestral lines, to reweave family lineage and heal old wounds.
Tasting a strong batch of nettle tea conjures images of the Black Forest in Germany. The deep, wild, earthy green taste feels familiar, like a taste I’ve known for lifetimes. Drinking a cup or two, my insides feel brighter, happy, soft. But drinking too much I can feel irritated, annoyed, and over-heated.
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.
A Personal Story
When I was in the Andes mountains of Ecuador in 2013 I met a Quichua 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, lemon balm 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 me (sort of gently) head-to-toe with the herbs for a solid 5 minutes. 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. But no rash appeared. There were no skin irritations at all. I continued to feel warm, and enlivened. It felt great to have good circulation! About two hours later, I was still free of any sign of the nettles’ sting. This fascinates me to this day, 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
Therapeutically, nettle is great for those with anemia as it improves iron absorption, improves circulation, and reduces uric acid for those who suffer from gout. Nettles are great for those with arthritis, and are used for a wide variety of skin conditions from acne to eczema. I love offering this herb to folks who are exhausted, depleted, or have suffered adrenal burn-out. Nutrient-rich nettles are also a great tonic for pregnancy, and new mothers who wish to increase their breast milk supply. Personally, I find that this herb helps to balance blood sugar levels and decrease sugar cravings. Nettles can also be taken to counter hay fever, allergies—and they’re a helpful ally for those with asthma.
To reap the benefits of nettle for any of the above mentioned therapeutic uses, you have to consume it over a long period of time To address anemia, asthma, skin issues, and hay fever, you will need to take nettles daily for several months. Over time, I’ve noticed that nettles improve the quality of skin, hair and nails through their nutrient and mineral-rich deep nourishment.
This herb is a food. Our bodies know how to use the nutrients because we’ve co-evolved with plants—and nettles grow all over the world, so most of us have ancestral ties to this plant. We are evolutionarily familiar with one another. Nettles, like many green herbs that are suitable as food, are easy to digest and assimilate. I think of nettle as an ally that cleans up our inner waterways: the lymph, blood, kidneys, and bladder.
The Spirit of Nettle
The spirit of Nettle presents itself to me as a firm, ferocious crone—strong and tough like the fibres of the plant. Nettle medicine goes deep, breaking up stagnation and removing old, dead waste from our bodies, that’s why this herb can be used to alleviate 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 to enjoy fresh nettles is to steam them 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 or sauté them for about 5 minutes to deactivate the sting, and enjoy them in any dish where you would use spinach.
The ideas for incorporating nettles into your diet are many! Try them in in any recipe subbed for spinach such as:
- Sag paneer
- veggie burgers
- Or my favourite, sauteed with butter and garlic.
- Potato and leek soup
Or in place of shredded zucchini such as zucchini bread, muffins, brownies or even cake!
The Wondersmith has a beautiful recipe for Nettle Cake, which I recently tried. It was beautiful and delicious! You can find the recipe here on her beautiful blog.
- blended into hummus or dips
- Dried: grind finely and add to salt or to sesame seed gomasio
I also grind it finely and add a scoop to soups, smoothies or stews to up the nutritional content.
I love to make soups with nettle. Instead of broccoli or spinach soup, use nettles! One of my all-time favourites is mushroom and nettle soup. It’s very basic: onions, garlic, brown mushrooms, broth, and nettles. I find blending the soups into a bisque once they are cooked adds a depth of flavour. Soooo good! Using nettle in soups means it’s easy to freeze large batches and have this nourishing herb through the seasons.
If you have the kind of juicer that can juice wheatgrass, then you can also 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. I crave this remedy when I’m exhausted, drained, or anemic.
Harvest and dry your own nettles, or buy them from a quality herb shop, and prepare a medicinal infusion. Many herbalists view teas as flavoured beverages and assert they are not very medicinal. However, a strong infusion can have powerful therapeutic action. To make a medicinal nettle infusion, weigh out 25g of dried nettle, and place the herb into 500ml of boiled water. Steep for 1 hour or even overnight. Strain and enjoy your vitaminand mineral drink!
You can make your own nettle tincture by blending the fresh leaves or ripening seeds with 75% alcohol at a 1:5 ratio. While tincture can be wonderful, my preference is to use nettle as explained above – as food or water extracts (infusions).
There are countless recipes for Iron Syrups out there that include nettle as a primary ingredient. Check out this recipe. A basic syrup is essentially a strong infusion or decoction of a herb, with a sweetener added for flavour and preservation.
Ritual & Magic
Hang bundles of nettle around your home, pin small nettle posies to your clothing, or strew them about in your car for protection. Gather bundles of nettle to use in ritual or spellwork to create boundaries. The energies of the planet Mars guide this herb, so you can also use it to magically activate and add fuel to a new project or venture.
When using nettles for medicine, use them as food first. Nettles offer a simple joy in the harvesting and preparation, and incorporating them into your life doesn’t have to be complicated or elaborate. The most beloved herbs in my apothecary are the ones that are inexpensive and accessible. So keep it simple: steam, infuse, and imbibe your nettles.If you are experienced with herbs and wild food, it’s fun to get creative if that inspires you. Though so often I meet students or patients who shy away from using these wild medicines, because they are intimidated by the belief that they will need 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.
I’d love to hear how you like to enjoy nettles! Please share in the comments below.