Stories are medicine: the folklore of healing
The folklore of foxgloves

The folklore of nettles

Spring is the time to harvest nettles...

Nettle path at the bottom of Nattadon Hill.

As we've been discussing the folklore of wild flowers and herbs, I thought I'd add two relevant posts from the archives to finish off the week. Here's the first...

In the fairy tale of "The Wild Swans" by Hans Christian Andersen, the heroine's brothers have been turned into swans by their evil stepmother. A kindly fairy instructs her to gather nettles in a ''The Wild Swans: Picking Nettles by Moonlight'' by Nadezhda Illarionovagraveyard by night, spin their fibers into a prickly green yarn, and then knit the yarn into a coat for each swan brother in order to break the spell -- all of which she must do without speaking a word or her brothers will die. The nettles sting and blister her hands, but she plucks and cards, spins and knits, until the nettle coats are almost done -- running out of time before she can finish the sleeve on the very last coat. She flings the coats onto her swan-brothers and they transform back into young men -- except for the youngest, with the incomplete coat, who is left with a wing in the place of one arm. (And there begins a whole other tale.)

This was one of my favorite stories as a child, for I too had brothers in harm's way, and I too was a silent sister who worked as best I could to keep them safe, and sometimes succeded, and sometimes failed, as the plot of our lives unfolded. The story confirmed that courage can be as painful as knitting coats from nettles, but that goodness can still win out in the end. Spells can broken, and gentle, loving persistence can be the strongest magic of them all.

Wild Swans by Susan Jeffers

The Wild Swans

I grew up with the story, but not with Urtica dioica: "common nettles" or "stinging nettles." I imagined them as dark, thorny, and witchy-looking -- and although they're actually green and ordinary, growing thickly in fields and hedges here in Devon, nettles emerge nonetheless from the loam of old stories and glow with a fairy glamour. It is a plant that heralds the return of spring, a tonic of vitamins and minerals; and also a plant redolent of swans and spells, of love and loss and loyalty, of ancient powers skillfully knotted into the most traditional of women's arts: carding, spinning, knitting, and sewing.

Nettles

Nettle Coat by Alice Maher

According to the Anglo-Saxon "Nine Herbs Charm," recorded in the 10th century, stiðe (nettles) were used as a protection against "elf-shot" (mysterious pains in humans or livestock caused by the arrows of the elvin folk) and"flying venom" (believed at the time to be one of the four primary causes of illness). In Norse myth, nettles are associated with Thor, the god of Thunder; and with Loki, the trickster god, whose magical fishing net is made from them. In Celtic lore, thick stands of nettles indicate that there are fairy dwellings close by, and the sting of the nettle protects against fairy mischief, black magic, and other forms of sorcery.

Nettle patch

''The Wild Swans'' by Susan Jeffers and Yvonne Gilbert

Nettles, ragged robin, and piskie flowers

Nettles once rivaled flax and hemp (and later, cotton) as a staple fiber for thread and yarn, used to make everything from heavy sailcloth to fine table linen up to the 17th/18th centuries. Other fibers proved more economical as the making of cloth became more mechanized, but in some areas (such as the highlands of Scotland) nettle cloth is still made to this day. "In Scotland, I have eaten nettles," said the 18th century poet Thomas Campbell, "I have slept in nettle sheets, and I have dined off a nettle tablecloth. The young and tender nettle is an excellent potherb. The stalks of the old nettle are as good as flax for making cloth. I have heard my mother say that she thought nettle cloth more durable than any other linen."

Nettle hunter at work

"Nettles have numerous virtues," writes Margaret Baker in Discovering the Folklore of Plants. "Nettle oil preceded paraffin; the juice curdled milk and helped to make Cheshire cheese; nettle juice seals leaky barrels; nettles drive frogs from beehives and flies from larders; nettle compost encourages ailing plants; and fruits packed in nettle leaves retain their bloom and freshness.

Foraging basket

"Mixing medicine and magic, a healer could cure fever by pulling up a nettle by its roots while speaking the patient's name and those of his parents. Roman soldiers in damp Britain found that rheumatic joints responded to a beating with nettles. Tyroleans threw nettles on the fire to avert thunderstorms, and gathered nettle before sunrise to protect their cattle from evil spirits."

Fresh nettle tips

The medicinal value of nettles is confirmed by Julie Bruton-Seal & Matthew Seal in their useful book Hedgerow Medicine:

"Nettle was the Anglo-Saxon sacred herb wergula, and in medieval times nettle beer was drunk for rheumatism. Nettle's high vitamin C content made it a valuable spring tonic for our ancestors after a winter of living on grain and salted meat, with hardly any green vegetables. Nettle soup and porridge were popular spring tonic purifiers, but a pasta or pesto from the leaves is a worthily nutritious modern alternative. Nettle soup is described by one modern writer as 'Springtime herbalism at one of its finest moments.' This soup is the Scottish kail. Tibetans believe that their sage and poet Milarepa (AD 1052-1135) lived solely on nettle soup for many years until he himself turned green: a literal green man.

"Nettles enhance natural immunity, helping protect us from infections. Nettle tea drunk often at the start of a feverish illness is beneficial. Nettles have long been considered a blood tonic and are a wonderful treatment for anaemia, as they are high in both iron and chlorophyll. The iron in nettles is very easily absorbed and assimilated. What cooks will tell you is that two minutes of boiling nettle leaves will neutralize both the silica 'syringes' of the stinging cells and the histamine or formic acid-like solution that is so painful."

Evening sunlight through the kitchen window.

Here's our family recipe for Bumblehill Nettle Soup, which is easy to make and delicious:

First, pick your nettles by pinching off the fresh leaves at the tip of the plant, leaving the plant itself intact. It's best to do this in the spring when the plants are young and the vitamin content at its highest, before the flowers appear. Rinse your nettle tips in cold water, and cut off any woody bits or thick stems. You need to wear gloves while you handle them, but once the nettles are cooked you can safely eat them without any stinging.

Melt some butter in the bottom of the soup pot, add a chopped onion or two, and cook slowly until softened.

Add a litre or so of vegetable or chicken stock, with salt, pepper, and any herbs you fancy.

Add 2 large potatoes (chopped), a large carrot (chopped), and simmer until almost soft. If you like your soup thick, use more potatoes.

Throw in several large handfuls of fresh nettle leaves, and simmer gently for another 10 minutes.

Preparing nettle soup.

Add some cream (to taste), and a pinch of nutmeg. Purée with a blender, and serve. (If you happen to have some truffle oil in your pantry, a light sprinkling on the soup tastes terrific.) Use the left-over nettles for tea, sweetened with honey.

Nettle soup and tea

You can also throw young nettle leaves into pancake, crepe, scone, biscuit, and bread recipes -- just rinse them, chop them, and blanch them in boiling water (to get the sting out) first.  Below, for example: savoury squares of nettle-and-herb flatbread with sea salt, and sweet nettle pancakes.

Nettle-and-herb flatbread

Nettles, herb Robert  and piskie flowers

Nettle pakecakes on the breakfast table

Nettles, folk tales around the world agree, have long been associated with women's domestic magic: with inner strength and fortitude, with healing and also self-healing, with protection and also self-protection, with the ability to "enrich the soil" wherever we have been planted. Nettle magic is steeped in dualities: both fierce and soft, painful and restorative, common as weeds and priceless as jewels. Potent. Tenacious. Humble and often overlooked. Resilient.

And pretty tasty too.

Fresh nettles

''The Wild Swans The Princess and her Swan Brothers'' by Donn P Crane

Pictures: The illustrations for "The Wild Swans" fairy tale are by Nadezhda Illarionova, Susan Jeffers, Mercer Mayer, Eleanor V. Abbott, Yvonne Gilbert, and Donn P. Crane. The Nettle Coat is by Alice Maher. Words: The quoted passages are from Discovering the Folklore of Plants by Margaret Baker (Shire Classics, 2008) and Hedgerow Medicine by Julie Bruton-Seal & Matthew Seal (Merlin Unwin Books, 2008).  All rights reserved by the artists and authors.

Related posts: Wildflower season, More folklore of the wild flowers, The folklore of food, and, for more on the Wild Swan fairy tale, Swan's wing. I've written about my personal connection to the fairy tale in "Transformations," but I must give you fair warning that this essay is a dark one.

Comments

Thank you for sharing this lore Terri! The nettles are in their early spring glory here in Canada right now. Here is a poem called "Old Nettle Woman" I wrote recently:

Old Nettle Woman finds me.
She comes to me in my deepest sleep.
She fills me with chlorophyll dreaming.
She whispers strength that flows from her fibrous roots,
and smiles the truth in the sting of her tiny needles.

Old Nettle Woman leads me to the creek side.
Her skirts rustle softly as she walks,
a delicate breeze in dark green leaves.
She settles on the bank beside me.
Her slender hands pull her prickly shawl closer,
and she gazes green on flowing water.

I bend my head to hear her soft voice,
and she spins a story of her lover the sun who courted her in the spring
by kissing and warming her tender maiden leaves.
She hums of crystal incandescent green and how she became so full of love for the sun,
that his light filled her and she unfurled her leaves,
And stretched her stems to reach for him in the deep blue summer sky.

Old Nettle Woman sits up straight while she sings of growing taller.
And then she smiles wickedly,
and weaves a tale of summer days when she pulled the sun so close to her
that the heat of their passion
burnt the tips of her leaves and left her panting in the dry dusty heat,
until the autumn rains came
and tiny droplets were succulent on her thirsty foliage.

I feel her scratchy seed clusters brush against my cheek,
and I strain to listen more closely.
The heat of their passion is singing in the dusty mist of pollen as it is released.
Her tiny black baby seeds dance around her in the breeze.
Some settle around their mama and others fly across the creek
to live and grow in parts unknown.

All her children are beloved equally.

And I realize that she and I are the same.
The sun loves us and
our children fly in the breeze.

Old Nettle Woman bows her head.
She is of the water and the soil and the air,
and though her roots have begun to pull her back,
it is her passion for the sun that will most sustain her
when the winter snows begin to fall
and she sinks and settles into the earth below.

I found this post through a nettle textile group on Facebook. Really interesting and beautifully produced article. Thank you!

A beautiful and very interesting read. Thank you

What a wonderful post! I spent a lot of time with nettles when I was researching my last novel (a retelling of Six Swans). I was flabbergasted to discover that they could be harvested fairly easily and eaten. I even retted some and worked with the fiber.

To me, the Grimm version of the tale is very matter-of-fact about nettles, while Andersen's Wild Swans focuses on the agony of working with them. I've wondered about the difference. Is it because the pain of stinging nettles increases the narrative tension? Would those telling the story to the Grimm brothers have been closer to nettle lore and craft? Either way, I'm with you: that fairy tale has always been one of my favorites!

Thank you for this post! As a nettle fan since many years, I now wish I could learn to work the nettle fibers into cloth, too. Today when I made nettle soup instead of sausages for lunch my son, who loves sausages, said "Yum! Even better!" when I told him what we were having!

This was a fascinating read. I so enjoyed learning more about nettles.

What an enjoyable article, thank you. I've been led to believe that nettles are very high in oxalates, which, if you ingest too much, can damage the kidneys. I think they should be blanched, to help remove the oxalates, before adding to your lovely soup. I make one batch of soup every spring, and dry the young leaves for an occasional cup of tea. I do love nettles and began learning how to harvest, process, and spin the fiber last year.

Wonderful, and thank you very much.

I love the idea of Old Nettle Woman, Diane. Thank you for sharing her.

Interesting questions, Sarah. I think part of the difference is that the Grimms were presenting the tales as folklore, and favored using a plainer style of language that echoed the oral tradition of unlettered country folk (despite the fact that the informants from whom they gained most of tales were middle class, educated women...but that's another story). Hans Christian Anderson, by contrast, was a literary writer, not a re-teller of folklore. He used material from the folk tradition, but crafted it into literary works; so his tales, in general, are more full of description, and go deeper into the emotional responses of his characters.

For more about the history of Grimms fairy tales, I recommend Valerie Paradiz's book Clever Maids, if you haven't read it already.

More on Hans Christian Andersen, his life and tales, here:

https://www.terriwindling.com/mythic-arts/hca.html


Sarah, Ruth, Pat and Sidney: Thank you for you kind comments.

You're clearly raising that boy right!

can you say if the nettle variety that grows on the northwest coast (very stingy) is more potent than the type that grows in the Ozark mountains (not stingy). We have a plethora of the non stingy kind.

This is one of my favorite tales too she said as she sipped her nettle tea.

There is a nettles for textiles group on Facebook.

Thank you for sharing this, I was getting ready to take some Nettle stems to a artist friend who is textile oriented when I came across your blog. I have shared this with her.
I am a herbalist and grow and impressive stand of Nettle that I use, and also teach from. Nettle is my herbal ally for when I feel fatigued, I make a infusion of the dried leaves, she is such a great pick me up, and levels out adrenals. I have a woodland Nettle that is Native to my area, and planted Urtica for making medicine use. I live in Eureka Springs Arkansas, and have Fire Om Earth Retreat Center.

WOW, lovely, just lovely...just found your post on FB for the first time, many interesting items here! Thanks awfully for your time and trouble!

Dear Terri (et al),

On May 20, I had a dream of swans that were dead and dismembered, and wrote a poem to help contain and honor the horror and sorrow I felt. On June 4, another image emerged (in my waking life) from the story of The Six Swans. I went on to your website to see if you had written about this fairy tale, to find that you had just published this post on June 1 about the folklore of nettles (I love this kind of symmetry!).

I then wrote a second poem, a retelling of The Six Swans, and am posting it here. Thank you so much for all your many travels back and forth across the thresholds to the realms of fairy tale, myth, and folklore.

Love you, love your work, love your website.

A Tale of Swansdown and Stinging Nettles

Jakob and Wilhelm, the Brüder Grimm,
passed on the tale of
The Six Swans,
the brothers transfigured into beings of light
by jealousy (one of the darkest of magics).

See them lifting into the bright air,
these messengers from the watery realm,
can you feel the wind from the rush of their wings,
spread across the morning sky,

and can you see their sister,
hidden, and silent, and alone,
knitting nettles,

clad not in brilliance and swanskin,
soaring cloud-bound,
but wearing tattered cloth,
and cloistered in green leaf and shadow,
earth-bound in the branches of the oak?

For all their majestic beauty,
the brothers are no freer
than the sister,
they bound within their
unchosen shapeshifting,
she bound within her chosen muteness and
wearisome burden,
all of them pinioned within their souls.

The king has found her in her shadowed oak,
married her,
gotten her with child,
and through all the finding,
and the marriage,
and the births,

she is ceaselessly
knitting nettles,
knitting nettles

The king’s mother
has stolen the children,
radiant with new life,
stolen them because
of jealously (one of the darkest of magics),
and pointed her poisoning finger at
the king’s wife,

she who is knitting nettles
that sting and sting and burn her hands,
her once beautiful hands that she cannot
spread out in supplication
to her husband the king.

she who is mute and muted,
who has closed away
her once beautiful voice,
the voice she cannot raise to cry out
to her husband the king
of the malice of
the king’s mother.

The king sees only his wife’s
lovely, beloved, face bent over
the knitted nettles -
he does not know
of the fate of the swan brothers,
he cannot find his stolen children
he does not see the truth behind
his mother’s lies,
and so, with regret,
he issues his judgement.

See her now, the queen,
bereft of brothers, and voice, and children, and
soft, unblemished hands, and
her husband’s devotion,
see her bound around the waist to the stake,
see the wood heaped around her feet, her skirts,

and

still she is
knitting nettles

the seven years, filled with love, and heaviness, and sorrow,
drawing themselves
here
to this moment in time

and

as the torch seeks to kindle the flames

the daybreak sky
begins to glitter,
igniting with newly risen sunsparks,
flashing on the goldwhite swans

circling the sky with their strong selves
mastering the air
circling the stake
circling their sister

and

she is flinging the swanshirts
knitted from nettles,

she is casting the garments
with a cry that breaks forth from
her long-unused,
her graceful,
hoarse,
but still supple throat

the seven years
coalescing
into this moment of
unspeakable beauty and endurance

the seven siblings
freed from sadness, spells, and silence

and

the youngest,
in the way of fairy tales,
shining in the rose and amber
light of morning,
possessing still a wing of sparkling feathers.


© Carole Wallencheck 2019


What a wonderful post, thank you! I always teel about the fairy tale in herb walks to show how grounding the nettel is. It takes your head out of the clouds and brings you totally on the ground, on earth and in the present moment.

Which sounds exactly like what the nettles do in The Six Swans tale!

I have heard that the fabric used for soldiers in WWI was made from nettles.

Yes, Carole, I love this tale and other tales about plants, they are so nice to illustrate the character of plants and how you can use them in daily life. And people get to know a plant much deeper with tales like this :-)

Thank you for this lovely source of info on nettles. I am researching folklore on woodland plants and flowers, as my theatre and arts group run outdoor creative projects for families, via which we teach these stories and their origins. This has been very helpful x

Such a rich trove of folklore! Thank you for sharing. I love the vision of the nettle being the staff of life in the Scottish Highlands. I've merely enjoyed its tea and nutritional benefits, living in the city, but value its medicine magic no less for that. <3

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