The Protein Plant: Stinging NettleBy Sharon Brown (Sharran)
January 13, 2009
Growing up as I did with a great aunt who made herbal medicines and a grandmother who lived off the land, it would have been easy for me to rely completely on homemade herbal remedies, vegetable gardens, and farm animals all these years. But that is not who I became. I was too much into modern conveniences and taking the easy road; but in the hidden recesses of my mind, I know very well that I could easily become the little old woman that Aunt Bett and Granny Ninna taught me to be. I like to think I am well on my way.
There was a time when my self-imposed "no meat" regimen created a problem for me. In those days there did not seem to be as much emphasis on proper diets for health purposes, so for a long time I probably did not get a very good variety of foods. I also did not correlate how I felt with what I ate. My personal experiences with Aunt Bett's herbal medicines were limited to salves and linaments, and not so much those that were ingested. That lasted right up till the year I became anemic and my mother became ballistic.
I was like the spinning top: tightly wound in the early morning, gaining momentum as the day went on, and winding down only in the evening when I was ready for sleep. But one spring day, I was not so tightly wound. I was old enough that I remember it very well, and Aunt Bett said I had spring fever and needed a tonic. Mom did not argue with her, but after a day or two of my lazing around doing not much of anything, she finally took me, kicking and screaming, to see the county doctor. Old Doc Collins took one look at me and asked me if I had a boyfriend. That made me mad enough to spit, and I can remember looking him in the eye and saying: "I got lotsa boyfriends, Doc, and you ain't one of 'em!" I do not like personal questions from people who don't even know me, and for the life of me I couldn't figure out what boyfriends had to do with whether or not I was sick. I did not want to be in his office anyway, and anything he said would have just made me that much angrier. I realize now that it was just small talk to put me at ease.
Of course that just placed my mother in her school teacher mode which she wore like a mantle about her head and shoulders. She stood up straight, her head tipped back, her eyes looked down her nose at me, and while she was in the middle of her tirade about my attitude, I fainted dead away and landed on old Doc's highly polished brogans.
I don't remember much more about that day, but I was put to bed when I got home and my mother started cramming some nasty looking brown liquid medicine into my mouth. I was too sick to argue with her, and she must have realized that because she never said a word when I threw up that very same medicine all over her lap and my bed. It might have been that only an evening passed, and the next morning I heard my Aunt Bett talking quietly with Ninna in the kitchen. By the end of that day, Granny Ninna was feeding me soup and I was able to keep it down very well. Mom did not try the nasty brown medicine again.
Although it is best known today for the burning rash it produces upon contact with the skin, stinging nettle deserves greater appreciation. Once widely consumed as a spring tonic, the plant's tender young stalks (boiling removes the irritating material) are rich in protein, iron, calcium and vitamins A and C. Those young stalks make a healthful tea, soup, or green. Clinical tests have proved that introducing nettle into a diet through its inclusion in soup or cooked in the same manner as spinach, is a good source of nutrients for people who lack meat or fruit in their diets. It must be the very young stalk that is used in both instances.
Native to Eurasia, stinging nettle now grows as a weed throughout southern Canada and in most of the United States. Urtica dioica is a perennial herb that can be found in waste places and along roadsides. It has erect stems up to 4 feet tall, and has opposite, heart shaped, coarsely toothed leaves covered with stiff, stinging bristles, which also cover the stems. Tiny light green flowers bloom from June through September and are borne in long slender spikes at the axils of the leaves.
An infusion made from the seeds is used today as a hair tonic and growth stimulant, and an antidandruff shampoo. A poultice of the leaves reportedly alleviates pain due to inflammation, and the dried powdered leaf is said to stop nosebleed. However, pharmacologists doubt that the plant is effective in any of these uses, but there is no doubt that it is rich in the nutrients which are mentioned above.
I remember being very sick that spring, and I hate to admit to you that I had to read in my meticulously kept baby book to see what the illness was. Mom wrote that I was anemic, and the brown liquid medicine that Doc Collins gave to me was iron. I can only imagine Aunt Bett and Granny Ninna taking over at that point. There was no way I could keep that nasty brown liquid down, and my mother knew it. I suppose she gave up trying and simply let my two little old ladies take over. The soup they fixed and I ate every day of that spring and summer was filled with nettle. It supplied the protein and iron that I was not getting from my regular diet. That was also the summer when I was allowed to eat as much peanut butter as I wanted. It must have worked, because the only time I remember fainting when I was a little girl was the time I landed on Doc's shoes.
Nettle was used for many things over the years, it was believed to be a cure for gout, rheumatism, baldness, and tuberculosis. Evidence from the Bronze Age tells us that it was used to make a linen like fabric, which was used as a shroud for some burials. Even today some evidence indicates that its juice is diuretic, and it is used in some herbal treatments of congestive heart failure. Eventually it became a cash crop when cultivated in Scotland for the fibers in stalks which served to make the fabric. Nettles are exclusive larval food for several species of butterfly and some moths. The roots are sometimes eaten by the larva of the Ghost Moth.
Those are all the positive things about a little plant that is usually known only for its irritating action upon the skin. I like finding plants like that, because it always brings to mind Aunt Bett's favorite saying: "For every thing there is a reason." I also like knowing those seemingly insignificant plants can provide me with a nutrient that I might not be getting otherwise. When it comes down to survival, it's nice to know I could make do with what I have.
One last thing I want to leave with you, nettle is a commercial source of chlorophyll, and yields a delightful bright green dye. Now I don't plan to dye my hair green for St. Patrick's Day, which is what I did one time long ago, but it might be a good time to paint a few shamrock tatoos here and there.
Photos are from Plant Files. Thanks to these photographers: Kennedyh, Baa, GardenGuyKin, and Zanymuse.
Source for verification: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stinging_nettle