The name 'nettle' (Urtica dioica), familiar to everybody, was said by the Victorian writer Dr. Prior 'to have meant primarily that with which one sews; and it is, indeed, almost identical with needle,' and for this reason Victorian writers thought this indicated that nettle supplied the thread used in former times in the Germanic and Scandinavian parts of northern Europe; as, it was said, to have been the case in Scotland in the 17th century. Westmacott said: 'Scotch cloth is only the housewifery of the nettle.' In Friesland it was also said that nettle thread had been used until a quite late period, with flax and hemp (southern European names) apparently introduced into the north to replace nettle.
Almost everyone who has ventured into the countryside, or outside the City limits, probably knows by experience the peculiarity of the nettle plant - the numerous little hairs which cover its leaves having conical receptacles at the base, and each needle exuding an acrid fluid (actually formic acid), which, when piercing the skin surface, inflicts its bothersome sting (sometimes producing considerable inflammation hence it's name 'stinging nettle'. This distinguishes it from the various dead-nettle species [Lamium], which somewhat resemble it but have no sting.
The leaves of the stinging nettle when young make a good potherb, and were at one time largely eaten, particularly when green vegetables were less abundant than they now are in our gardens. In Scotland it was the practice to 'force the nettles for early spring kail,' and there are many accounts of nettles being dressed like spinach and making excellent eating. By earthing-up the plants nettles may be blanched in the same way as sea-kale or celery, and cooked in a similar manner.
The juice of nettles yields a permanent green dye which, it is said, was used for woollen stuffs in Russia. The roots, boiled with alum, produce a yellow colour, which dyes yarn well, and was apparently employed to stain eggs yellow preparatory to the feast of Easter by the religious of the Greek Church. Not only were nettles esteemed as an article of food, but the plant yields one of the best of vegetable fabrics for textile purposes. Campbell, complaining of the little attention paid to it in England, said: '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 more durable than any other species of linen.'
The fibre being produced in less quantities than that of flax, and being somewhat difficult to extract, accounts perhaps for the fact that it was little used in Britain, though in some countries it is still occasionally manufactured for the fashion industry.
Medicinally, the juice of the nettle acts as a slight astringent. It was recommended by the old writers on herbs as a styptic, and seems to have been recommended in arresting bleeding of the nose. With this view, a small piece of lint moistened with the juice may be placed in the nostril. An infusion, known as 'nettle tea,' was a common spring medicine in many rural districts, and was thought to purify the blood. Carden recommended stinging with nettles 'to let out melancholy,' an advice also given by some other old writers. The legendary Bacon commented: 'We have no good opinion of it, lest through the venomous qualities of the nettle it may, with often use, breed disease of the skin.'
The Technical Bit...
Stem erect, 18 inches to 4 feet high, simple or more rarely branched. Leaves 2 to 4 inches long, variable in breadth, somewhat rugose, from the longitudinal veins being deeply impressed above, but not distinctly so, as the tertiary veins are not so deeply impressed; serratures of the margins variable in depth, with the outer margin curved, so that the point is directed towards the apex of the leaf, the basal ones smaller than the others. Petiole not more than as long as, and often shorter, than the breadth of the leaves. Stipules strap-shaped, rather small. Panicles 1 to 3 inches long. Male spikes slender, female rather dense. Nut ovate-ovoid, compressed, olive, nearly smooth, slightly shining, enclosed in the enlarged and connivent inner sepals. Plant hairy, the stem and leaves on both sides furnished with stout stinging hairs. Leaves dull dark green, and generally paler beneath.
NETTLES - largely forgotten as food, but still used in many parts of the world.
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Pictures and text Copyright © M. Harrison, 2010.