By Lise Wolff
With the deep freeze of winter descending upon us, I thought it might be appropriate to encourage you to infuse your life with the deep green of stinging nettles (Urtica dioica). Although its tender young leaves are often eaten as a spring tonic, it would make just as much sense as a winter tonic.
When I first started making medicinal tinctures, I tried to label my stock jars with the uses of every plant. My nettles were labeled “for everything!” As a young herbalist I was not yet able to distinguish where to use nettles, but I realized that whenever I wasn’t sure what to use, nettles usually helped the situation.
My first introduction to nettles was within the “wise woman” tradition of Susun Weed. Oriented toward preventative, gentle nourishing herbs, nettles were high on the list. High in calcium, magnesium, iron, potassium, phosphorus, manganese, silica, iodine, silicon, sodium (the good kind), sulphur, chlorophyll, vitamin C, beta carotene and B-complex vitamins, nettles also have high levels of easily absorbable amino acids and are ten percent protein; higher than any other vegetable. A fellow herbalist in New York State sells his nettles as “Ithaca’s own super blue green algae.” Perhaps it is time to value the common weeds around us instead of reaching for endangered plants such as goldenseal, Echinacea, or ginseng.
Stinging nettles also has a high vitamin K content which is believed to help with preventing and/or controlling excess bleeding, probably for everyone, but it was emphasized in the wise woman tradition for pregnancy and delivery (although I favor shepherd’s purse if there is partum or postpartum hemorrhaging). Nettles are also used to stimulate lactation.
As I developed as an herbalist I tried to focus in on the more specific uses of each plant. I was not a book-oriented herbalist for the first several years. Instead I utilized the Doctrine of Signatures. This is the concept that plants look like, or act like, or grow within, a situation they would treat. I know it sounds a bit primitive, but that concept has allowed me to be very creative with the plants and discover uses that do not show up in books.
The first time I used stinging nettles by the Doctrine of Signatures my housemate had a rash on her hand, seemingly from nothing. It was red, puffy and irritated looking. She was tall, thin and pale. She believed she was suffering from hypothyroidism. Low energy. Cold extremeties. Not an uncommon thing these days. I tried all my typical anti-inflammatory, skin rashy, herb standards: burdock, calendula, Saint John’s wort, to no avail. Finally I thought to myself, “What would cause something like this?” Stinging nettles. Collecting them I develop a similar type of irritation. I applied a few drops of the tincture to her hand and gave her five drops under the tongue. Five minutes later she showed me that the rash and inflammation were gone. She then added that she had been trying to get warm all day, sticking her hands and feet directing in front of the heater, but five minutes later she was freezing again. Her hands and feet were now quite warm! I had never found that in the books. I good lesson for keeping warm in our Minnesota winters.
Stinging nettles seem to gently get the body’s motor purring again. Susun Weed tells the story of a woman who brought her irradiated thyroid back to normal function by drinking nettle tea over a period of several months. In South America stinging nettles are used to flagellate arthritis sufferers, dispersing the various deposits that are thought to cause arthritis. I have used this plant with success for edemic conditions as well. Taking nettles internally serves as an internal whip to stimulate your whole body’s cleansing process. Keep this in mind when your body needs to move mucous out of the lungs. It also treats swollen sore throats very well (the very condition you would provoke by eating some nettles raw).
I have been told of nettles clearing gingivitis (swollen and inflamed gums) as well as turning people’s hair black (a real trick if you are a blond), both as a rinse and taken internally. I have seen nettle tincture stop excessive hair loss and restore some degree of thickness. I have also used nettles successfully to heal burns and poison ivy. Although it is the wrong season, and it is only one of the many possibilities, freeze-dried nettles seems to be quite helpful for some allergy sufferers, hay fever as well as animal dander.
In my book stinging nettles is clearly an herb “for everything!”