HISTORIES & FOLKLORE
Stinging nettle is a well-known plant across Europe, Asia, western North Africa, and North America; and is especially common here in the wet, temperate understories of our Pacific Northwest forests. Nettle’s botanical name is Urtica dioica, "urtica" coming from the Latin root word urure, to burn; which we of course attribute to the fiery heat from the nettles' sting; and “dioica” is derived from two Greek words, di meaning “two” and oikos meaning “houses”. But the etymology of the English word "nettle" is the Middle English netle, from Old English netele, which may come from the Proto-Indo-European root, ned which means to bind or tie. This is a compelling argument given the plant's use as a textile fiber for over 5000 years.
18th century poet Thomas Campbell is quoted for saying "In Scotland, I have eaten nettles, I have slept in nettle sheets, and I have dined off a nettle tablecloth. The young and tender nettle is an excellent potherb. The stalks of the old nettle are as good as flax for making cloth. I have heard my mother say that she thought nettle cloth was more durable than any other linen." Flax eventually became more widely used as a fiber and later, cotton, as it gained favor over nettles as a plant that could be cultivated. The process of removing the "outer bark" of the stalks, separating the inner fibers from the outer shell either fresh, and combining them while still green; or through the process of "retting" (which is a process through rotting to break down the wax that binds the fibers), is a similar production as flax. But as time passed, nettles came to only be used in times of migration and scarcity, or poverty as it was foraged rather than cultivated. However, being extremely high in chlorophyll, the plant was still used for its coloring as a dye, producing a rich green. In the Pacific Northwest of North America, various Coast Salish tribes have also long used the root as a dye but for the color yellow; as well as for food, medicine, and textiles. A two-ply string or twine is created from the fibers by peeling, drying, and rolling the bark on the thigh by hand. This twine is traditionally used by Lummi, Snohomish, and Skokomish people for netting.
Obviously most famous for its sting, the hairs on nettle stems are made from silica, which inject poison by penetrating the skin and bending to release the toxin; often breaking off and diffusing the toxin even more. The severity of the burn depends on peoples natural resistance to the chemicals, as well as the degree to which the skin has contacted the plant from brushing the needles lightly to fully engaging the silica needles’ stinging actions. To cultivate the leaves, people learned to harvest carefully, folding the tops of the leaves against one another to hold; and among many cultures and traditions it's believed the stronger one's intention and relationship with the plant, the less likely one suffers a sting. In fact, in one of Aesop's Fables, The Boy and the Nettles, the story goes:
A Boy was stung by a Nettle. He ran home and told his Mother, saying, “Although it hurts me very much, I only touched it gently.” “That was just why it stung you,” said his Mother. “The next time you touch a Nettle, grasp it boldly, and it will be soft as silk to your hand, and not in the least hurt you.” Moral: Whatever you do, do with all your might.
A similarly themed English rhyme says:
Tender-handed, stroke a nettle
And it stings you for your pains
Grasp it like a man of mettle
And it soft as silk remains
In Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale, The White Swan, the princess Elisa must weave a coat of stinging nettles in order to break the spell over her brothers who were all turned to swans by their wicked stepmother. Elisa is guided by the queen of the fairies to gather the nettles from a graveyard, and must vow to silence for the duration of her task no matter how great the pain of the stings; as any utterance will kill her brothers. She's soon accused of witchcraft. Determined to silence, she can't defend herself and is therefore sentenced to burn at the stake. She continues to weave the shirts for her brothers until finally she completes them and at the last moment, is saved.
There are several other idioms and expressions recorded such as the German "sitting in nettles" which means you're in trouble; as well as the French "don't push grandma in the nettles" and of course in English to say one is "nettled" means one is agitated.
And in the story, Anansi and the Nettles, Anansi; knowledge bearer of all stories and trickster; wants to court a princess but having not won the king's approval in spite of outwitting the Tiger, he is challenged by the king to cut down a field of nettles without being stung or itching. He ultimately wins the hand of the princess by distracting the king when he needs to scratch an itch!
In Germanic and Nordic folklore, Loki is said to have made his fishing nets from nettles.
The use of nettles in foods across the world are common and go back to very ancient times. Once eradicated of their stinging properties through cooking, juicing, or drying; nettles are a super healthy alternative or substitute for any leafy green across any recipe which calls for greens; and because they're high in chlorophyll not only do they add nutrients, they brighten up the color in any kind of soup, smoothie, or spread. Nettles are also used in various other dishes from aspics, jams, and gelatins to risottos, quiches, tortes, purées, and sauces. Often, very old ale and beer recipes call for the use of nettle, as well.
Nettles are recorded in texts as being used for pudding, such as an extremely well-aged recipe for pudding out of England, thought to have dated back to 6000BC. It calls for sorrel, watercress, dandelion leaves, young nettle leaves, chives, barley flour, and salt. The mixture is then made into a cloth bundle which is then cooked in a pot of simmering boar or venison (or other meat such as lamb). Pudding in Britain, it must be noted, is not what we know as a custard in the US; but a breadlike dish that is typically cooked in a liquid. A 15th Century English recipe for Wortis, from A Noble Boke off Cookry records a savory dish of boiled and minced nettles and leeks with oatmeal, salmon, and mussels. Wortis, or sometimes referred to as wortes, is a kind of stew or pottage with stock, meat, other ingredients, and grain as a thickener; strained and served with bread.
In this 16th Century German cookbook, aptly named, Das Kuchbuch der Sabina Welserin, there's a recipe for preserving game using nettles:
29 If you would preserve game for a long time. When it is an entire red or roe deer, then skin it and take out the entrails and hang it in a cellar without any drafts. After that you must baste it every day, inside and out, with wine. And put inside it nettles or mint. When it is washed out inside with wine you must lay in it fresh herbs, then it will keep for a long time. When it is just a piece of game, however, then lay it in a trough with fresh nettles and mint over or under it and baste it every day with wine.
The extracted enzymes from nettle are commonly used in curdling milk to make cheese, acting in the same fashion as animal rennet, which comes from the stomach lining of calves and lambs. Many cheeses are also wrapped in nettle leaves which act as a rind and also a garnish; but contribute flavor as well. In the Basque region, nettle leaves are used to strain milk curd in a dessert made with sheep's milk, curds, and honey known as Mamia.
In Turkey, the Balkans, Albania, and surrounding regions baby nettle leaves are blanched and mixed with other ingredients, herbs, meats, and rice in the popular baked dish börek or buryek— the dough used is much like phyllo dough and is known as yufka. In Greece, nettles are used in the regional dish, hortopita, which is a savory pie made with phyllo dough, herbs, wild leeks, sorrel, and various other wild leafy greens. Coming mainly from the North, hortopita is a shepherd's tradition; "horta" means "greens". Unlike spanakopita or baklava, the dough is not quite as thin in this more rustic dish.
The esoteric citations of nettle, unsurprisingly, derive their uses from nettle’s naturally protective qualities and medicinal properties. Across folk uses, we see nettle used as an apotropaic ingredient or charm for protection, warding, and uncrossing. Nettle can be used as a ward against negativity by casting it throughout the home, adding it to an incense, as an ingredient in a wash or a bath, taken as a potion; or carried/worn as an amulet for protection against negativity and ill-intent. In both Nordic as well as Mexican traditions, nettle is considered a "carnivorous" herb, and as such works well in purification baths in which the remedy is to “cut and clean” a person.
One of the herbs in the Nine Herbs Charm, an Anglo-Saxon charm passed down through oral histories but first recorded in the tenth-century medical compilation known as the Lacnunga (which means “remedies”), a medical text documenting materia medica and prayers/charms; the poem seems to infer that nettle has the power to attack against poison, fight infection and contagious disease, and to have fought “against the serpent”. One translation reads:
Nettle it is called, it attacks against poison,
it expels malignant things, it casts out poison.
This is the herb that fought against the serpent,
this avails against poison,it avails against contagion,
it avails against the loathsome one who travels through the land.
Now, you, Attorlothe [Betony?, Black Nightshade?], put to flight the lesser the greater,
the greater the lesser, until the cure for both be with him.
Nettle is often said to avert ghosts when held in the hand, and to send curses back to their owner. This is done in a few different ways, either stuffing a poppet, carrying in a sachet, or burning. Nettle is also thrown into a fire to avert or thwart danger.
Some Nordic practitioners say this is the herb of Muspelheim, the burning land, and its power is in its assertive defense. Because of this association with the realm of fire and its accompanying powers, nettle likes to be burned, but burns very hot so can be a symbolic substitute for fire in a place where you aren't allowed to actually light a flame, ie, asperge. Take caution in using it with an open flame, as throwing it into a fire makes a hotter, longer lasting fire which can pose some dangers, so practice safely when burning.
Raven Kaldera, a Northern tradition practitioner, describes nettle as an “aggressive defender, in the sense that it will not only absorb any harmful magic that is thrown at you or the space, it will strike back if you let it” This is apt in its observation of how the characteristics of nettle as a plant in its environment translates directly to its esoteric use as a guardian, defender, protector, and at times, offender.
Alaric Albertsson, A Handbook of Saxon Sorcery & Magic: Wyrdworking, Rune Craft, Divination, & Wortcunning, Woodbury MN, Llewellyn Worldwide, 2017
Allan Brown, Nettles for Processing, 2018
Brooke Bullock, Leechbook III, A New Digital Edition (A Senior Thesis)
— for neck pain
— use in a pottage
Daniel E. Moerman, Native American Medicinal Plants, An Ethnobotanical Dictionary, Portland Oregon, Timber Press, 2009
David E. Allen & Gabrielle Hatfield, Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition, An Ethnobotany of Britain & Ireland, Portland Oregon, Timber Press, 2004
Deni Bown, Encyclopedia of Herbs & Their Uses, New York, Dorling Kindersley Publishing, 1995
Dr. William Thomas Fernie, Herbal Simples Approved for Modern Uses of Cure, 1897
— rubbing nettle with dock leaf as a remedy for sting
— various uses and origins in Europe and Russia (main entry for nettle is p 382-397)
Erma Gunter, Ethnobotany of Western Washington: The Knowledge and Use of Indigenous Plants by Native Americans, Seattle, University of Washington Press, 1945/1973
J.Cameron, Names of plants (Scottish and Irish) — web archive of Irish and Scottish names, associations, and sometimes folklore
Oswald T. Cockayne; Leechdoms, Wortcunning, And Starcraft Of Early England, London : Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts, and Green 1864
Margaret Grieve, (1931). A Modern Herbal
Nettle in Duchas.ie
Richard Folkard, Plant Lore Legends and Lyrics, Embracing the Myths, Traditions, Superstitions, and Folk-Lore of the Plant Kingdom, London England, 1884
Scott Cunningham, Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs, Woodbury MN, Llewellyn Worldwide, 1985
Techniques for creating textile out of nettle, via nettlesfortextiles.org.uk
Woden's Nine Herbs Charm, via heorot.com
Camila Fiol, Diego Prado, María Mora, and J. Iñaki Alava; Nettle cheese: Using nettle leaves (Urtica dioica) to coagulate milk in the fresh cheese making process, International Journal of Gastronomy and Food Science Volume 4, July 2016, Pages 19-24
Colm, A 15th century medicinal recipe from Co. Louth, Irish Archaeology, 2014
Constance B. Hieatt, Brenda Hosington, Sharon Butler, Pleyn Delit: Medieval Cookery for Modern Cooks, Toronto Canada, University of Toronto Press 1976
Melitta Weiss Adamson, Food in Medieval Times; Food through History, Westport, CT, Greenwood Press 2004
Redon, Odile; Sabban, Francoise; Serventi, Silvano; The Medieval Kitchen- Recipes from France and Italy, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1998
Medieval Cookery, If You Would Preserve Game for a Long Time, excerpt from Das Kuchbuch der Sabina Welserin, Germany, 16th century - V. Armstrong, trans.
Medieval Cookery, Wortis, excerpt from A Noble Boke off Cookry, England, 1468
Medieval Cookery, To Make chese Nesh At Is Ouer Hard, excerpt from Thomas Awkbarow's Recipes (MS Harley 5401), England, 15th century
Medieval Cookery, Trayne Roste, excerpt from Two Fifteenth-Century Cookery-Books. England, 1430
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