Discovering Herbs: Urtica dioica
We have all been too close to Nettles at some point in our lives. It is usually a brief, unexpected and none too pleasant experience. This doesn’t tend to endear the plant to the unfortunate victim, but in fact it has many medical uses and can be a great friend to those who take the time to get to know it.
The name Urtica comes from the Latin ‘to burn’. The itchy and burning sensation that is felt is due to its stinging hairs which are sharp, polished spines containing histamine and formic acid. These irritating chemicals are released when the plant comes in contact with the skin.
While the hairs of the stinging nettle are normally very painful to the touch, when an area of the body that is already in pain makes contact with the plant, these chemicals can actually help to decrease the pain level.
This is why stinging nettle is called a counter-irritant. Applying juice from the stinging nettle to the skin can actually relieve painful nettle stings or insect bites.
The irritant effect of the sting is lost on drying or heating the herb in water, but if preserved in cold alcoholic tincture, the irritant action is preserved. You can even apply a tincture of the fresh herb to the surface of an inflamed joint and this will induce counter-irritation and produce reddening over the joint. This flushes blood through the area and relieves pain.
The Romans, who had a vast wealth of herbal knowledge, used this stinging mechanism to treat rheumatic conditions by flaying their joints with fresh nettles. This would increase blood circulation to the joint and had a strong anti-inflammatory effect. It would also warm them up if they were suffering from the effects of the cold British climate. In fact you can blame the Romans for the patches of nettles in your garden, as it was they who introduced the herb to the UK in the first place!
Nettles are a good source of nutrients and are traditionally taken as a spring tonic to help recovery from the depths of winter. In spring the young fresh green leaves can be cooked and eaten like spinach or made into a soup. Nettle is rich in iron and vitamin C, making it a useful remedy in anaemia and other debilitating states. The presence of the vitamin C helps to ensure that the iron is properly absorbed.
On top of all these benefits, the wonderful nettle also has an important effect on the kidneys and on fluid levels throughout the body, where it can act as a herbal diuretic.
So perhaps the next time you have an unexpected contact with the stinging nettle you can think of it a little differently.