Nettle has been used from the Bronze Age to make a linen–like cloth and in Medieval times the herb was called ‘poor mans linen’. With the advent of imported cotton and flax from America, nettle ‘linen’ fell out of fashion. However, the production of cloth from nettle was revived in the Second World War, when cotton imports were threatened.
The Romans originally introduced nettles to England and used it to treat the soldier’s rheumatism, caused by the country’s damp climate. The cure involved whipping the affected joint with the stinging nettles. This cure for rheumatism is still used in many parts of the UK and is called ‘urtication’, after the Latin, ‘Urtica’ which means I burn. Even though investigations into this method of using nettles have shown it to reduce pain in the long-term, you have to be a brave soul to carry it out! However, modern day herbalists still use the properties of nettle as an anti-inflammatory and blood purifier to treat arthritic conditions, often in combination with Turmeric.
Galen, the Roman physician, recommended the friction of the leaves against the skin to stir up ‘natural heat, to stimulate desire and cure impotence. In France today they still suggest that a young man rolls naked in a bed of nettles before he goes courting, but perhaps not on a first date!
Nettles make an excellent food, especially soup, and can be used like spinach. They are full of vitamins A and C as well as iron and make a particularly good spring tonic after the winter. Because of their high iron content they are particularly good for anaemia and a useful iron tonic can be made by packing nettle leaves into a nettle tincture with apricots and leaving to steep for a few days.
Nettle is also an astringent, so it dries and tones tissues. It is often used in hair conditioners, as it is believed to stop hair loss. The famous herbalist Nicholas Culpeper used it to stop nosebleeds by placing the leaves up the nostrils.
Nettle has many other actions and is used by herbalist for a variety of conditions. Nettle is strong diuretic and is especially good for helping excrete uric acid, so is used for gout. It is an anti-allergic and is often prescribed for hay fever and it also helps lower blood sugar levels, so can be used in sugar dependent diabetes
So before you pull up or spray that nettle in your garden, just think of all the things you could be using it for instead.