Nettles – Weeds or Wonders?
by Maggie McLauchlan
Nettles are a common weed we find growing all over the world, apart from the Arctic, Antartic and South Africa. The three species found growing in the British Isles are the Stinging Nettle Urtica dioica, the Dwarf Nettle Urtica urens and the Roman Nettle Urtica pilulifera. The Dead Nettle Lamium album is not included here as it is not a true nettle (Urtica), though the leaves are superficially similar. The presence of nettles normally indicate a soil rich in nitrogen.
The Latin name Urtica means “burning” and “uro” means ” I burn”. Nettles are from the plant family of Urticaceae. They have been used in herbalism for hundreds of years. There are 500 – 2600 species in the family of Urticaceae, and 30 – 45 species of Urtica around the world. .
The sting of nettles contains the chemicals Histamine, which irritates the skin, Acetylcholine that causes a burning sensation and Serotonin, which causes the other two chemicals to react. This is the main side effect from using nettles. The leaf of the Dock Rumex is traditionally used to reduce the pain of the nettle sting and are normally found growing in the vicinity of nettles.
Urtica dioica is a perennial plant that grows in most places throughout the spring and summer months in Britain. They can grow up to heights of a metre or more. They have dark green, heart shaped, serrated edged, leaves covered in small stinging hairs, as are the large square stems. The flowers are green and hang in catkins from the plant. The male and female catkins grow on different plants, hence the Latin name dioica meaning “two houses”. They grow along yellow rhizomes.
Urtica urens is a smaller annual nettle and grows to 50 centimetres high. The male and female flowers are on the same plant. This one has the mildest sting of the three British species.
Urtica pilulifera is also an annual and grows to about a meter high. The flowers are in small clusters of compact globular heads. It grows mainly by the sea, but is rare. This species is the most venomous of the three.
Folklore / Mythology / History
There is lots of Folklore about nettles. In Norse mythology Thor the god of thunder is often represented by nettles and burning them on the fire will protect you from his lightening during thunderstorms. Also in Norse mythology Loki, the trickster god, spun fishing nets out of nettles. Actually a very good string can be made out of nettles and nettle string had many uses in the ancient world.
West African folklore has it that Anansi the trickster/culture hero who appears as a spider, has to chop down a huge nettle patch so he can win the hand of a king’s daughter. He has to do this without itching or scratching at the burning sting of the nettle. He tricks all those watching, including the king, by asking about the cows who normally eat the nettles, each time he asks a question he uses a part of his body that has been stung to refer to the cows body and rubs at the stings.
Hans Christian Anderson has the princess in his story, The Wild Swans, weave coats of nettles she has collected to free her brothers who were changed into swans. She has to do this without uttering a word, whilst she picks the nettles and uses her bare feet to tread on them to turn them into cloth.
The Buddhist Saint and Yogi, Milarepa, is also known as the Green God and is often shown as being green after eating nothing but nettles during his meditations. Milarepa had his family wealth stolen from him after his father’s death by his aunt and uncle who then made Milarepa; his mother and his sister live in poverty and work for them. Milarepa at his mother’s insistence learned the art of magic to wreck revenge on his aunt and uncle and their family. Firstly he called up deities who stormed a wedding being held by his enemies, where they killed 35 members of the family. The villagers despised him for this and his mother was not satisfied because the aunt and uncle escaped with their lives. So again on his mother’s insistence Milarepa conjured up a hailstorm to destroy all their crops. Milarepa felt really guilty about his deeds and wanted to change his bad Karma, so he was advised by the Lama Marpa to meditate in a cave. Milarepa did this for many, many years and with having no food to eat existed on nettles alone. From his years of eating nettles he is said to have turned green and hairy and is now often shown as being green in pictures of him. Stone figurines of Mliarepa are normally made from Jade. Jade is the stone of wisdom, justice, compassion, modesty and courage. “Life is short and the time of death is uncertain; so apply yourself to meditation. Avoid doing any evil, and acquire merit, to the best of your ability, even at the cost of life itself. In short, act so that you have no cause to be ashamed of yourselves and hold fast to this rule.” Milarepa.
Urtica dioica was used by the physicians Galen (131CE – 201CE) and Dioscorides (c.40CE – c.90CE) as a laxative and diuretic. They were used by them to aid in relieving asthma and pleurisy. The use of nettles can be found in the earliest Pharmacoeias of Europe.
The Romans are said to have brought Urtica pilulifera to Britain where they used them to relieve rheumatism and arthritis by flogging themselves with small branches of them tied together, this stimulates the blood. They also used them to keep out the cold of the damp British climate.
Nettles have been used to make cloth, paper, fishing nets, sails, tablecloths, ropes and textiles since the Neolithic times.
A Bronze Age (2200 – 700 BCE) body was discovered in Denmark wrapped in cloth made from nettles. Human settlements that have long since been abandoned, can be spotted by archaeologists as nettles still grow there.
The German army used nettle for their uniforms in World War 1. In the Second World War the leaves were used to make the green dye for the military uniforms. The roots can also be made into a dye that is yellow. Today nettles are again being used to make cloth as they are Eco-friendly and easy to grow. The tough fibres from the stem are used to make the cloth. It is reported that it is stronger than cotton and finer than hemp. People used to sleep between the sheets made from nettles. The chlorophyll is used as a green dye and is listed as a food colorant (E140) by the European Community.
Environment & Conservation
Nettles are home to a lot of butterflies like the Red Admiral Vanessa atalanta, Small Tortoiseshell Aglais urticae, Peacock butterfly Inchis io and the Comma butterfly Polygonia c-album. They use the nettle to lay their eggs on and when the larva hatch they feed on the nettles. Some moths also use the nettle patch to lay their eggs or feed, they are the Burnished Brass moth Diachrysia chrysitis, the Spectacle Abrostola triplasia, the Beautiful Golden Y Autographa pulchrina, the Nettle Top moth Anthopila fabricana and the Mother of Pearl moth Pleurotya ruralis.
Jumping Plant Lice Trioza urticae use the nettle to lay theirs eggs, where they create a gall (an abnormal growth produced by the plant or other host which causes an enlargement on the plant that provides food and shelter for the host.) Some insects like the Nettle Weevil Phyllobius pomaceus, the Small Nettle Weevil Cidnorhinus quadrimaculatus, the Small Green Nettle Weevil Phyllobius roboretanus and the Green Nettle Weevil Phyollobius viridaeris only live in nettle patches.
Nettle Aphids Microolophium carnosum and Aphis urticata also live on nettles where ladybirds go to feed on them. Ants can be found protecting and herding aphids for the sweet nectar they secrete. Leaf-Mining Flies Agromyza anthracina; Agromyza pseudoreptans and Agromyza reptans use nettles for food by burrowing between the leaves.
Many birds like the coal tit, blue tit, siskin, reed bunting and bullfinch are attracted to nettles for the seeds and insects.
Nettles make a natural organic fertiliser that is rich in nitrogen and potassium. Soak the leaves for two weeks in water (approx. 1Kg to 5 litres) then strain the leaves adding them to the compost heap and use the remaining liquid as a plant feed or a pesticide against aphids and blackfly. Nettle leaves added to the compost heap also act as an activator, to speed up the decomposition of organic materials.
Nettles contain vitamin A, vitamin B1 (thiamine), B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin), B5 (panothenic acid), vitamin C, vitamin D, vitamin K, vitamin E. chlorophyll, potassium, calcium, mangaan, acetycholine, serotonine, sulphur, iron, selenium, magnesium, chromium and zinc.
Nicholas Culpepper, in his classic work Complete Herbal and English Physician says that Mars governs nettles. “You know Mars is hot and dry, and you know as well that winter is cold and moist; then you may know as well the reason nettle-tops, eaten in the spring, consumeth the phlegmatic superfluities in the body of man, that the coldness and moistness that winter hath left behind.”
Homeopathic medicine uses the Dwarf Nettle Urtica urens for treating minor burns, scalds, sunburn, insect bites, hives and prickly heat, normally applying as a cream.
Cosmetically nettles are traditionally used as a hair rinse, to make the hair shine.
Clinical Trials Around The World
In clinical trials Urtica dioica has been tested for its benefits in the treatment of Benign Prostatic Hyperplasia (BHP), a condition that affects elderly men. It is a non-cancerous enlargement of the prostrate gland. This gradually narrows the uretha that drains the urine from the bladder and causes difficulty in urination. This can also cause lower urinary tract symptoms.
In clinical trials held at the University of Medical Sciences in Iran, Urtica dioica has been shown to lessen the symptoms of BHP. In a 6 month trail 81% of the 287 patients suffering with BHP and using nettle, had noticed an improvement of their symptoms of lower urinary tract, compared to 16% of the 271 patients taking a placebo. A modest reduction in the size of the prostrate was also noticed in the patients taking the roots of Urtica dioica. (PubMed 2005).
Further clinical trials held in the University Clinics of Cologne in Germany, for patients suffering from Lower Urinary Tract Symptoms (LUTS), caused by BHP proved to have a higher success rate of 34% for those taking the roots of Urtica dioica compared with the patients who took Tamsulosin (an alpha blocker) medication. The German Commission E Monograph supports these findings by it’s similar listing of “irrigation in inflammation of the urinary tract and in the prevention and treatment of kidney gravel.”
Many trials have been held using Nettle and Saw Palmetto Serenoa serrulata combined for lower urinary tract symptoms and benign prostatic hyperplasia. Clinical trials have also been used to test the effectiveness of nettle leaves in the treatment of arthritic and rheumatic conditions. They have been shown to be effective but further clinical trials are needed to assess nettle leaves to either validate or refute their use. Although the German Commission E Monograph has approved the use of nettle leaf as “a supportive therapy for rheumatic ailments”.
In 1999 at the Plymouth postgraduate Medical School, University of Plymouth in Devon, an exploratory study of nettles Urtica dioica for musculoskeletal pain and discomfort was conducted by Dr. Colin Randall. The trial was conducted on 18 patients whose ages were between 48 and 82 and who had already used nettle for the varied pain and limited function in the knees, shoulders, wrists, finger, back thumb, hips or sciatica. 15 of the 18 patients claimed nettle treatment worked about 90% of the time. The pain relief was normally quick to act and one patient claimed her psoriasis on her elbows had also improved. No serious side effects were found from nettle use other than the red rash normally caused by the nettle sting. The results found were interesting and led Dr. Randall to study nettle use further.
In 2000, he conducted a randomised controlled double blind study of nettle Urtica dioica in the use for people who suffer from osteoarthritic pain in the base of the thumb or index finger. The stings of nettle leaves were applied to the base of the thumb or finger for one week. 27 patients took part on this occasion. 13 patients used stinging nettle Urtica dioica while 14 used White Dead Nettle Labium album as a placibo. Researchers found that nettle stings significantly reduced the pain of osteoarthritis in the thumb and index finger and also the level of pain stayed lower throughout most of the treatment. 17 patients said they wished to use stinging nettle in the future.
Side effects from nettles are rare, where they cause stomach upsets. The most common problem with nettles is the burning red rash from the sting. They are not known to interact with any other medication. Although animal studies have documented nettles as lowering the heart rate. So there are possible contraindications with patients who are taking heart medication. Generally the use of nettles is safe.
Tall nettles cover up, as they have done
These many springs, the rusty harrow, the plough
Long worn out, and the roller made of stone:
Only the elm butt tops the nettle now.
This corner of the farmyard I like most
As well as any bloom upon a flower
I like the dust on the nettles, never lost
Except to prove the sweetness of a shower.
Poem by Edward Thomas. 1878 – 1917
The New Holistic Herbal by David Hoffman
Complete Herbal and English Physician by Nicholas Culpepper
Nature’s Plan for Your Health by Thomas Bartram
Bartram’s Encyclopaedia of Herbal Medicine by Thomas Bartram
Homeopathy for Common Ailments by Robin Hayfield
101 Uses for Stinging Nettles by Piers Warren