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Nettles: Folklore of Wergulu

Did you know there's a common plant growing in the UK which can be foraged and harvested for free, and that has superfood status? Those who have no idea about it will often see it (and many other useful wild plants) as nothing more than an annoying weed. It grows pretty much everywhere in the UK but especially loves to grow in the damp, green sides of holloways and along woodland tracks. The plant we're talking about is the nettle (Urtica dioica). Nettle season is in full swing right now so it's a perfect time to go foraging for them, and they're very easy to identify.

In this post about nettles, we cover a lot of information, from old herbal remedies through to its uses as a modern superfood. Here's a guide to what you can discover:

A lot of dark-coloured seeds drooping downwards on the stem of a female nettle plant
A female nettle plant, heavily laden with seeds

Nettles have been held in high regard since ancient times, and why should we let that stop? Along with a really long history of use as a source of medicine, food and fibre, they also have a long tradition in folklore and hedge witchery. Their curative properties in Britain have been written about since Roman and Saxon times. The whole of the nettle plant can be used, and has been for thousands of years. Its uses range from making fine thread, string and rope, through to weaving cloth for clothes.

Green leaves and spiked flowers of plantain
Plantain, possibly better for stings?

Nettle's Sting

Many people will first associate the discovery of nettles with that unmistakeable sting. When walking through overgrown areas, the sting often announces where a patch is growing before it's actually seen. The sting itself is caused by the nettle's tiny hairs that deliver a sharp shot of histamine. It's a distinct reminder of childhood for most of us, and the subsequent search for dock leaves to ease the pain.

Chaucer repeats an old charm in Troilus and Creseyde in 1386, ‘Netle in, dokke out’, that you would recite whilst using the dock leaf. I must admit, I've never had much luck using dock – I’ve found the Plantains to be far more effective for nettle sting relief.

Nettles as a herbal medicine

Large green nettle leaf with a jagged saw-tooth edge
The classic saw-toothed shape of the nettle leaf

Saxon Nine Herbs Charm

Back in Saxon times, when the plant was known as "wergulu", it was one of the nine Saxon herbs used in charms and amulets. The 10th century Lacnunga (Anglo Saxon medical texts) contains an invocation called the Nine Herbs charm. It was believed that reciting the charm may have helped practitioners invoke their preparations by calling out each ingredient.

Alongside nettle, the recipe included mugwort, plantain, shepherd’s purse, betony, chamomile, crab apple, chervil, and fennel. The plants were boiled, mixed with soap, and made into a salve to treat skin infections.

John Gerard's Herbal

In the 16th century, John Gerard recommended baking nettles with sugar in his Herbal. The resulting confection would boost the “vital spirits”, though I’m not too sure how much today’s palate would like the taste of these. Many plants and herbs have been made into sweets over the years, used for their medicinal benefits, often in the form of cakes with the addition of honey.

creamy-green coloured male nettle flowers standing erect on the stem
Male nettle flowers

Nettles for Fertility

Through the ages, dried nettles have been carried to bring luck and provide protection. British folklore tells of nettles being carried to protect from lightning whilst travelling during storms. It was also used to call on the spirit world to aid in the healing of sickness and to bring luck in fertility for both men and women. The plant’s ability to enhance fertility in men has been written about many times... Best get foraging fellas!

Nettles for Hair Growth

In the medieval era, people believed that you could improve the growth of your hair with nettles. It was said that to speed up the growth of your hair, you needed to squeeze juice from nettle leaves and dip your comb’s teeth into the juice each morning. The comb was then used to comb your hair the wrong way.

Seeds on the stem of a female nettle plant drooping downwards
The seeds of a female nettle plant drooping downwards

Medicinal Uses

As a brew it's very beneficial, and medicinally it's drunk for urinary problems and haemorrhoids. Whilst on its own it might not be the tastiest, the addition of some honey will help to improve the flavour. Nursing mothers can take it to keep their milk flowing. Nettle tea is used for arthritis and rheumatism, as it clears uric acid from the system, helping you move more easily. None of us like creaking joints as we age, eh?

Old Herbal Cures

A 10th century publication called Bald’s Leechbook contained a recipe for an ointment to treat muscular pain which contained nettles. Other tales from old folklore say that a fever could be dispelled by "plucking a nettle up by its roots, holding it high in the air and reciting the names of the sick man and of his family".

Swelling caused by fluid under the skin (commonly around the legs and ankles) is known today as edema, but in the past was called dropsy. To cure dropsy, a bunch of nettles growing in a graveyard would be plucked and boiled in water. The person suffering with dropsy was then given the resulting water to drink as a cure.

A bed strewn with nettles was said to help rheumatism. Furthermore, three doses of nettles in the month of April was said to prevent any disease for the rest of the year. Nettles were also considered to help the emotional and mental, as well as the physical aspects of being human – a distillation of the flowers of the white archangel, or white dead-nettle (Lamium album) is reputed "to make the heart merry, to make a good colour in the face, and to make the vital spirits more fresh and lively."

Nettle as a protective herb

Creamy-green coloured male flowers on the stem of a nettle plant
Light-coloured male flowers

The further back in time we look, the more we find that the physical "seen" world overlapped with spiritual, magickal beliefs. They weren't separate as we see them through our scientific gaze today, but overlaid and intertwined. Protection against evil was considered highly important, and ritual was another layer of this. In everything, the everyday world was connected and combined with the magickal, the natural with the supernatural. As an example, nettles gathered before the sun rises and fed to cattle were believed to repel evil spirits.

Nettle as a Liminal Plant

Wergulu (nettle) was considered a "gatekeeper" plant, a protector of the forest. It grows on boundaries, and along the edges of paths. As we learned from the cure for dropsy (above) it grows well in graveyards, and very much likes to grow near the dead. The nettle is considered to be a plant of the crossroads, a liminal gatekeeper plant. It has its roots deep in the ground, and its leaves reaching for the sun. With its healing properties and associations with burial grounds, it really is a plant of the living and the dead - as above, so below.

The stem of a nettle with light-coloured seeds drooping downwards
Female nettle plant with drooping seeds

Strewing Herb for Protection

Dried nettles were used very much as a threshold plant. As they grew plentifully, they were strewn across the floor in the old days as an alternative to straw or hay. Placed around the whole dwelling, it was said to keep evil away, and when kept in a room it was believed to protect anyone inside. It really was considered a defence against the negative.

Nettle as a Plant of Muspelheim

Both the Norse and Saxons considered the nettle as a plant of one of the nine worlds, Muspelheim, which was a burning hot place filled with lava, flames, sparks and soot. It was known as the “Realm of Fire” which gave birth to the Sun and the stars, a world of fire and giants. From this we have a small piece of surviving Saxon folklore which says that casting fresh nettles into the hearth of a fire in a home will help keep away evil, bad luck or danger for those living in the household for the coming days. Another similar piece of folklore says that rolled up and dried nettle leaves thrown into a fire were said to send curses back to the sender.

Nettles protect. This probably comes from their ability to sting, striking out at those who dare to intrude upon them. Only people with the knowhow are free to partake of their benefit. I can just imagine these everyday rituals being carried out on dark nights in longhouses all those years ago. Nettles have been a real household tradition.

Nettles as a superfood

Light-coloured erect flowers growing from the stem of a nettle plant
The light-coloured erect flowers of the male nettle plant

Nettle's Superfood Qualities

One of the ways we can quite easily partake of the benefit of nettles today is by tapping into them as a superfood. Nettles are dioecious meaning half of the plants will be male, and the other half will be female. The superfood side of nettles comes from the leaves and seeds, specifically the seeds of the female plant. Female nettle seeds are packed with vitamin A, several B vitamins, beta carotene, vitamin C, calcium, vitamin E, folic acid, iron, vitamin K, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, potassium, silicon, sulphur, several essential fatty acids, and the neurotransmitters acetylcholine and serotonin, making nettle seeds natural mood boosters.

Maybe the ultimate in woodland nutrition, and it's free! Yes, there's the time factor but remember: you're out in nature, at one with the wild - make it a family thing :-)

Darker green leaves with seeds drooping downwards
Female nettle with seeds

Identifying Male and Female Nettle Plants

So, how do you identify the female plants from the males? It's very easy and you'll soon get an eye for it. The female seeds are fatter and more heavily laden, drooping downwards. The male flowers do look similar to seedpods, but they aren't so abundant and stand more erect! So when foraging for nettle seeds, the ones to look for are the female plants with their low hanging, fatter seed stem.

As you study the heads of the nettle plants you'll very soon start to notice the difference between male and female. On good examples, the female ones have a darker emerald green colour to the seed whereas the male nettles have lighter green/yellow/brown flowers which are more sparse and don't tend to hang down in the same way as the female seeds.

Light-coloured male nettle flowers against darker green leaves
Male nettle flowers

Gathering Seeds and Leaves

The purpose of the male flowers is to pollinate the females. The male flowers and leaves can be eaten but are lacking the goodies that the female seeds carry. When harvesting the seeds or leaves it's best to use some scissors, maybe coupled with gloves if you're worried about getting stung. Yes, you can just use your fingers, but scissors make it that bit more enjoyable and who likes to be stung by nettles?

For the leaves, you want the topmost tips of the plant, say the top quarter. This will be well away from the ground on decent specimens of nettle. The main bulk of seed will also be in that area, and obviously you want the most nutritious seed. Always try to gather over a wide area, preferably where there hasn't been any spraying by farmers, and the plants won't have been pissed on by wildlife or dogs. Harvest only what you intend to use - humans aren't the only species that uses, and benefits from nettles.

Fresh green nettle plant laden with seeds
The fresh green of a female nettle plant

Drying and Using Foraged Nettles

So what do you do with the seeds or leaves once harvested? The seeds are best dried. Leave them spread out in a wind free area in the sun for a while, turning them over every hour or so. A day of this will see them dry enough to be handled, and used, without getting stung. Same with the leaves, which can be dried and used the same as tea leaves. They take a little longer to brew but that's all part of the ritual of foraging. The most common thing is to use the fresh leaves as simple greens, either a pot herb or spinach type replacement. The heat of steaming or boiling takes care of the sting. Simple preparation and processing are key for nettles, and getting rid of that bloody annoying sting! There are tons of recipes online, but we'll do something to add to this post later on. Watch this space.

If you want a simple way to sample this magickal plant, stop and gather some fresh leaves, boil some water and have a cup of wild nettle tea to honour this powerful gatekeeper.

As you sit and ponder the world, remember this plant is helping to protect you, imparting its protective energies inside you, and making you glow, shielding you from the negative. It's loaded with all the good things the body needs.

Sparse flowers on a male nettle stem
Male or female? You can tell by now ;-)

The Rules of Foraging

It’s always worth remembering that there are unspoken rules of the land about foraging, and there's more out there than your human eyes can see - be respectful ;-)

- Always know what you're picking, and even if you need to take a book to help with id, be sure of what you're gathering.

- Never consume a wild plant unless you are absolutely certain of its identification.

- Only collect flowers, leaves, fruits and seeds where they are in abundance. It's very easy for an area to become depleted through over foraging.

- Always leave plenty behind, take no more than you plan to consume.

Once you get the knowledge and knowhow for foraging, you'll soon learn to look off the beaten track a bit where you'll find the real gems!

Finally, the most important rule of foraging for wild food or medicinal plants: if in doubt, leave it out.

A large patch of nettle plants all growing together
Nettle patch

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