Nettles are a powerhouse of stuff we need after winter. The leaves contain both iron and vitamin C to aid iron absorption. There are other minerals such as calcium, potassium and silicic acid in addition to flavonoids, phenols and chlorophyll. The roots have lots of polysaccharides, several phenolic compounds, lecithin and sterols.

German studies in 1999 show nettles to have a strong anti-inflammatory action. The leaves are rich in histamine – which can help with allergies. Also they contain serotonin – another very valuable compound for positive being. For this reason nettle is a useful tonic and it can be prepared in several ways.

Nettle tea is good internally for rheumatic pains. As a mild diuretic nettles can help to eliminate sodium and urea from the body, hence easing rheumatic and arthritic complaints. Their high iron and vitamin C content can help with anaemia. Nettle tea also provides a relief from sunburn if applied cool to the afflicted skin. It also makes a cleansing and scalp stimulating hair rinse.

Nettles are also an astringent. As such, they are sometimes used to decrease unwanted prostrate growth. German research in ‘Planta Medica’ in 2000 observed that the root inhibited the growth of prostate tissue. However do not self-prescribe for prostrate enlargement (benign prostatic hyperplasia) – seek advice first as part of a medical or holistic treatment. Nettles as an astringent have also been used to help with removing blood in the urine and other ailments of the urinary tract, haemorrhoids and excessive menstrual flow.

As a tonic in beer, tea or soup they strengthen the whole body. The high salicic acid content in the plant can also help with eczema and the dried leaves make an easy poultice for some joint pains. Add the dried leaves to hot water to make a porridge that can be applied externally when cool enough. Flogging the affected part with nettles was once called ‘urtification’ and was used for rheumatic joints. A remedy with its own hypodermic needles built-in ! I quite enjoy being (slightly) stung by nettles when working in the garden.

Hildegarde of Bingen in her Treatise on Physic recommends eating the young shoots of nettle as a tonic:

“Nettle is very hot in its own way. It is not at all good eaten raw, because of its harshness. But, when it newly sprouts from the ground, it is good when cooked, as food for a human. It purges his stomach and takes mucus away from it. Any kind of nettle does this.”

She also suggested preparations of nettle, to cure internal worms in humans, internal discomfort in horses, and even as a treatment for senility:

“And, a person who is unwillingly forgetful should pound stinging nettle to a juice, and add a bit of olive oil. When he goes to bed, he should thoroughly anoint his chest and temples with it. If he does this often, forgetfulness will diminish.”

The seeds of the nettle plant were once considered to have aphrodisiac qualities.

Gerard claims Nettles as a remedy against hemlock, bad mushrooms, quicksilver and Henbane, also against the bites of serpents and scorpions. An oil made from the leaves will take away the sting that “itself maketh”.

In all nettles are a most underrated plant. Their association with a ‘poverty diet’ has caused their use to decline. I predict a return to popularity of this most useful and nutritious plant.

Cautions : Apart from the obvious stinging sensation (other varieties of this plant can be extremely vicious), please do not eat old leaves as they can produce kidney damage if the needles do not break down. Internal use of nettles can cause skin rashes if taken over a long period, so just take it for two weeks out of three. Nettles can also cause gastric inflammation in some cases so watch out for this. Avoid nettle treatments altogether if taking medication for diabetes, high or low blood pressure or to depress the central nervous system. Do not take nettles if pregnant or breastfeeding. Although nettle juice has been used to increase lactation in nursing, fennel is probably a more useful herb for this as it doesn’t have the possibility of gastric irritation.