Love Lies Bleeding‘s readers know that main character Mara is both a vampire and a botanist. Trained in botany and herbalism when she was still human, she continues to study plants and have a garden. This post is ninth in a series exploring Mara’s plants. Are you interested in botany, gardening, or plant lore? So are some vampires…
Please note: Medicinal uses are given for informational purposes only. Always consult a medical professional before diagnosing or treating yourself or anyone else.
Please also note: Nettle is known as stinging nettle for a reason. See “Caution” below.
Botanical Name: Urtica dioica
Common Names: Stinging nettle, common nettle, nettle leaf, stinger, burn nettle, burn weed, burn hazel, feuille d’ortie, slender nettle, tall nettle, wild nettle. (Not to be confused with dead nettle, Lamium spp.)
History: Native to Europe, temperate Asia, and parts of northern Africa, nettle can now be found throughout the world. It grows abundantly in areas that receive regular rain, such as the Pacific Northwest, and locations that have been disturbed by humans (e.g., ditches and fields). The German idiom “sich in die Nesseln setzen,” or to sit in nettles, means to get into trouble. The medical term for hives, “urticaria,” comes from the Latin word for nettle: Urtica (from urere, “to burn”). It has been used as medicine, food, tea, and as a raw material for textiles since ancient times.
Language of Flowers Meaning: Rudeness, coolness, scandal, pain, slander, cruelty, protection (no two sources I found gave the same meaning).
Cultivation: Perennial. Nettle needs moist, rich soil (it’s also an indicator of fertile soil wherever it grows wild). Start seeds indoors about 4 to 6 weeks before the last frost date, or sow seeds directly in spring or autumn. Transplant hardened seedlings in spring, spacing plants 30 cm (12 inches) apart. Make sure to grow nettle away from high-traffic areas in your garden. The plant grows 1 to 2 m (3 to 7 ft) tall in summer and dies back in winter. Harvest leaves in early spring (don’t use once the plants have flowered) and roots in autumn. Nettle spreads easily via rhizomes, so if you’d like to grow it but don’t want it taking over your yard, keep it contained with a barrier around its roots (if it gets invasive, regular and persistent tilling can help get it under control; otherwise, you may need to resort to herbicides). Add nettle leaves to compost as a source of nitrogen (or make compost tea). You can also forage for nettle in green spaces and open woodland (just be sure it hasn’t been sprayed with pesticides or steeped in car exhaust).
TIP: Aphids love nettle. Grow nettle to keep aphids away from other garden plants (like roses).
Medicinal: The fresh plant is a traditional spring tonic. Fresh or dried leaves and the powdered root have been used to treat disorders of the kidneys and urinary tract, and for sore muscles, osteoarthritis, rheumatism, and gout. The leaves are also used for skin conditions, to treat anemia, and to reduce hay fever. There is some evidence that nettle lowers both blood sugar and blood pressure. Some folk practitioners still practice Urtication, or flogging with nettles, to treat arthritis and rheumatism, and to increase circulation (although this has been shown to be effective, before you try it keep in mind that Urtication has also been used as a sentence for criminals).
Hair Care: A tea made from nettle leaves can be used as a hair rinse to add strength and shine. Some people believe it also stimulates hair growth, but that is purely anecdotal.
Culinary; Nettles are rich in Vitamins A, B, and C, as well as iron, potassium, calcium, and protein. Use young plants picked in spring (plants that have flowered or gone to seed contain gritty particles that can irritate the urinary tract and kidneys). The sting can be removed by cooking or drying nettles, or by soaking them (I can confirm that cooking and drying works, but I’m hesitant to try the soaking method– please let me know if you have, and how it went). Fresh nettle can be used like spinach or other greens, or made into chips or pesto. Dried or fresh leaves and flowers can be made into tea. You can also brew beer from young nettles.
Fun Fact: There’s a World Nettle Eating Championship, where people compete to see who can eat the most fresh nettles. Those with a low pain tolerance need not apply.
Wildlife: Nettle provides food for the larvae of several species of butterflies and moths. Ladybugs (a beneficial garden insect) also prefer laying their eggs on nettle. When harvesting, watch out for eggs and caterpillars (a curled leaf can be a sign of a resident) and avoid damaging those leaves.
Textiles: Nettle has been used to make a linen-like fabric for at least 3,000 years, and unlike some plants (looking at you, cotton) nettle doesn’t need pesticides. Some modern European manufacturers are starting to produce nettle fabric again.
This short video demonstrates how to make nettle fabric:
And this video shows how to make paper from nettles:
Natural Dye: Nettle produces yellow dye from its roots and a yellow-green or grey-green hue from its leaves.
Caution: The leaves of most nettle species are covered in hollow needle-like hairs that inject histamine and other irritating chemicals into the skin when touched, causing a stinging sensation and contact dermatitis (known as contact urticaria). The sting is removed when nettles are cooked or dried. Wear gloves and use caution when handling the fresh plant. Dock leaves are a traditional remedy for nettle stings, and dock often grows close to nettle (you can also use spotted jewelweed, plantain, antihistamines, or anti-itch creams).
Caution 2: Nettle has been deemed likely unsafe to take during pregnancy, as it could potentially cause a miscarriage. Although it has a history of being used to induce lactation, it is now recommended to avoid nettle while breastfeeding. Nettle can also interfere with some medications; let your doctor know if you are using it.
Mara’s Uses: Mara would include nettle in tinctures and teas to help strengthen bloodletters (human volunteers used by vampires for their blood) and to prevent or treat anemia.
Aspasía S. Bissas
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Canadian Wildlife Federation (includes recipes)
Penn State Hershey (medicinal use)
Surprising Ways to Use Stinging Nettles (with recipes)