No plant is more commonplace and plentiful in our fields and hedges throughout an English summer than the familiar stinging Nettle. And yet most persons unknowingly include under this single appellation several distinct herbs. Actually as Nettles are to be found: the annual Urtica dioica, or true Stinging Nettle; the perennial Urtica urens (burning); the White Dead Nettle; the Archangel, or Yellow Weasel Snout, and the Purple Hedge Nettle. This title "Urtica"
comes ab urendo, "from burning."
The plant which stings has a round hairy stalk, and carries only a dull colorless bloom, whereas the others are labiate herbs with square stems,
and conspicuous lipped flowers. As Simples only the great Stinging Nettle, the lesser Stinging Nettle, and the white Dead Nettle call for observation. Also another variety of our Stinging Nettle is the Urtica pilulifera, called by corruption the Roman Nettle, really because found abundantly at Romney in Kent. But a legend obtains belief with some that Roman soldiers first brought with them to England the seeds of this plant, and sowed it about for their personal uses.
They heard before coming that the climate here was so cold that it might not be endured without some friction to warm the blood, and to stir up the natural heat; and they therefore bethought them to provide Nettles wherewith to chafe their limbs when "stiffe and much benummed." Or, again, Lyte says, "They do call al such strange herbes as be unknown of the common people Romish, or Romayne herbes, although the same be brought direct from Sweden or Norweigh." The cure for
Nettle stings has been from early times to rub the part with a dock leaf. The dead Nettles are so named as having no sting, but possessing nettle-like leaves. The stinging effect of the true Nettle is caused by an acrid secretion contained in minute vesicles at the base of each of the stiff hairs; and urtication, or flogging, with Nettles, is an old external remedy, which was long practised for chronic rheumatism, and loss of muscular power. Tacta quod exurat
digitos urtica tenentis. Macer. Tea made from the young tops is a Devonshire cure for Nettle-rash. Gerard says, "the Nettle is a good medicine for them that cannot breathe unless they hold their necks upright: and being eaten boiled with periwinkles it makes the body soluble."
The word Nettle is derived from net, meaning something spun, or sewn; and it indicates the thread made from the hairs of the plant, and formerly used among Scandinavian nations. This was likewise employed by Scotch weavers in the seventeenth century. Westmacott, the historian, says, "Scotch cloth is only the  housewifery of the Nettle." And the poet Campbell writes in one of his letters, "I have slept in Nettle sheets, and dined off a Nettle table cloth: and I
have heard my mother say she thought Nettle cloth more durable than any other linen." Goldsmith has recorded the "rubbing of a cock's heart with stinging Nettles to make it hatch hen's eggs." Some think the word "Nettle" an alteration of the Anglo-Saxon "Needl," with reference to the needle-like stings. Spun silk is now made in England from "Ramie" the decorticated fibre of Nettles after washing away the glutinous juice from under their bark.
The seeds (dioica) contain a fine oil, and powerfully stimulate the sexual functions.
In Russia, as a recent mode of treatment, urtication is now enthusiastically commended, that is, slapping, or pricking with a bundle of fresh Nettle twigs for one or more minutes, once, or several times in the day. It is a superlative method of cure because harmless (neither irritating the kidneys nor disfiguring the skin), cleanly, simple in application, rapid in its effects, and cheap, though perhaps somewhat rude. For sciatica, for incipient wasting, for the
difficult breathing of some heart troubles (where such stimulation along the backbone affords more prompt and complete relief than any other treatment), for some coughs palsy, suppression of the monthly flow in women, rheumatism, and for lack of muscular energy, this urtication is said to be an invaluable resuscitating measure which has been successfully resorted to by the peasantry of Russia from time immemorial. It will sometimes produce a crop of small harmless blisters.
The analysis of the fresh Nettle shows a presence of formic acid (the irritating principle of the stinging hairs), with mucilage, salts, ammonia, carbonic acid, and water. A strong decoction of Nettles drunk too freely by mistake has produced severe burning over the whole body, with general redness, and a sense of being stung. The features became swollen, and minute vesicles appeared on the skin, which burst, and discharged a limpid fluid. No fever accompanied the attack, and
after five or six days the eruption dried up. A medicinal tincture (H.) is made from the entire plant with spirit of wine: and this, as taught by the principle of similars, may be confidently given in small diluted doses to mitigate such a totality of symptoms as now described, whether coming on as an attack of severe Nettle rash, or assuming some more pronounced eruptive aspect, such as chicken pox. The same tincture also acts admirably in cases of burns, when the deep skin
is not destructively involved. And again for relieving the itching of the fundament caused by the presence of threadworms.
"Burns," says Lucomsky, "may be rapidly cured by applying over them linen cloths well wetted with an alcoholic tincture of the Stinging Nettle prepared from the fresh plant, this being diluted with an equal, or a double quantity of cold water. The cloths should be frequently re-wetted, but without removing them, so as to prevent pain from exposure." Dr. Burnett has shown conclusively that Nettle tea, and Nettle tincture (ten drops for a dose in water), are curative of
feverish gout, as well as of intermittent fever and ague. Either remedy will promote a speedy extrication of gravel through the kidneys. Again the Nettle was a favorite old English remedy for consumption, as already mentioned (see Mugwort), with reference to the mermaid of the Clyde, when she beheld with regret the untimely funeral of a young Glasgow maiden.
Fresh Nettle juice given in doses of from one to two tablespoonfuls is a most serviceable remedy for all sorts of bleeding, whether from the nose, the lungs, or some internal organ. Also the decoction of the leaves and stalks taken in moderate quantities is capital for many of the minor skin maladies.
An alcoholic extract is made officially from the entire young plant gathered in the spring, and some of this if applied on cotton wool will arrest bleeding from the nose, or after the extraction of a tooth, when persistent. If a leaf of the plant be put upon the tongue and pressed against the roof of the mouth, it will stop a bleeding from the nose. Taken as a fresh young vegetable in the spring, or early summer, Nettle tops make a very wholesome and succulent dish of greens,
which is slightly laxative; but during Autumn they are hurtful. In Italy where herb soups are in high favour, "herb knodel" (or round balls made like a dumpling in size and consistency) of Nettles are esteemed as nourishing and medicinal. The greater Nettle (Urtica dioica), and the lesser Nettle (Urtica urens) possess stinging properties in common.
A crystalline alkaloid which is fatal to frogs in a dose of one centigramme, has been isolated from the common Stinging Nettle. The watery extract has but little effect on mammals: but in the frog it causes paralysis, beginning in the great nervous centres and finally stopping the action of the heart. If planted in the neighbourhood of beehives, the Nettle will serve to drive away frogs.
The expressed seeds yield an oil which may be used for burning in lamps. Nettle leaves, rubbed into wooden vessels, such as tubs, &c., will prevent their leaking. The juice of the leaves coagulates, and fills up the interstices of the wood. When dried the leaves will often relieve asthma and similar bronchial troubles by inhalation, although other means have failed. Eight or ten grains should be burnt, and the fumes inspired at bedtime.
White Dead Nettle
The Lamium album (white dead Nettle), a labiate plant, though not of the stinging Nettle order, is likewise of special use for arresting haemorrhage, as in spitting of blood, dysentery, and female fluxes. Its name Lamium is got from the Greek laimos, the throat, because of the shape of its corollae. If the plant be macerated in alcohol for a week, then cotton wool dipped in the liquid
is as efficacious for staying bleeding, when applied to the spot, as the strongly astringent muriate of iron. Also, a tincture of the flowers is made (H.) for internal use in similar cases. From five to ten drops of this tincture should be given for a dose with a tablespoonful of cold water. The Red Nettle, another Lamium, is also called Archangel, because it blossoms on St. Michael's day, May 8th. If made into a tea
and sweetened with honey, it promotes perspiration, and acts on the kidneys. The white dead Nettle is a degenerate form of this purple herb as shown by still possessing on its petals the same brown markings.
Nevertheless, having disobeyed the laws of its growth, it has lost its original color, and, like the Lady of Shalott, it is fain to complain "the curse has come upon me." Count Mattaei's nostrum Pettorale is thought to be got from the Galeopsis (hemp Nettle), another of the labiate herbs, with Nettle-like leaves, but no stinging hairs, named from galee, a cat, or weazel, and opsis, a countenance, because supposed to have a blossom resembling the face of
the animal specified.
The Primitive Simplers presented here show the way of life in other generations, it is not suggested or recommended trying them yourself.
History of Herbs
Herbs for Beginners
Drying & Preserving Herbs
Indoor Herb Gardening
Hints & Tips
Oil and Vinegar
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