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Stinging Nettle

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Background and History

Stinging nettles are just one of some twenty-nine different species of nettles, the majority of which are characterised by their dark-green to emerald-hued foliage and hairy constituent parts, although an equally sizeable number of plants under the genus Urtica lack the 'hairiness' typically associated with this distinct plant species. Of the twenty-nine various nettle species, stinging nettle has had the longest history of folkloric medicinal usage, and is still employed as an alternative medicine for the treatment of a number of minor and major bodily complaints to this day. [1]



The stinging nettle is a dioecious perennial that often displays herbaceous or shrub-like characteristics, although in some instances it may be mistaken for a vine due to its tendency to creep and spread whenever it manages to thrive in an environmentally superior area. It is discernable for its darkgreen foliage (a common feature in most nettles), and for its relatively delicate, serrated, spade-shaped leaves. It is notorious for its hairy stinging leaves and stems, which can be very uncomfortable to very painful for individuals who happen to disturb or brush upon a stinging nettle bush. A little known fact about stinging nettles is that the hairy 'stingers' (called trichomes) actually come off when disturbed. They are so thin that they literally dig right into the skin in a needle-like fashion, causing mild discomfort while releasing a slew of natural chemical compounds which cause further pain, burning, and later, a feeling of numbness. [2]

The stinging nettle also possesses small jade-green to dun-hued flowers that are densely packed and found growing just beneath the stem where the leaves grow. These flowers tend to be highly notable for their uncanny appearance, as, in spite of being very small, they are possessed of highly visible stamens that extend well beyond the central part of the flower itself. Known nearly the world over for its medicinal properties, the stinging nettle is also consumed as a foodstuff in many parts of the world. As with most folkloric medicinal plants, all of its constituent parts can be used medicinally, with some parts possessing unique medicinal properties not found in the other parts. In spite of its versatility, the stinging nettle's leaves have been, and still continue to be the most popular part employed for medicinal, culinary, and even occult purposes. [3]

Stinging nettles tend to thrive nearly anywhere, provided that they chance upon fertile, nitrogenous soil and ample amounts of water and sunlight. In spite of its seemingly delicate nature, stinging nettles are very hardy plants which are able to thrive in often harsh environments, which is why in some parts of the world they are considered an invasive (and often unwanted) species, chiefly because of the fact that they can be painful when accidentally brushed upon. Its hardiness and adaptability is among the many reasons why stinging nettles can be found in nearly every part of the world, with the exception of the Polar regions and severely dry areas such as the Sahara.



Common / Popular Uses

Stinging nettles have become a fixture of many branches of folkloric herbal medicines, having been used to treat a wide array of different diseases since ancient times. While the earliest use of stinging nettles as a type of medicine cannot be exactly ascertained, it may be surmised that it had been in use since the time of the Early Chinese prior to the War of the Seven Kingdoms (circa 200 BC), and may have even been employed by the Ancient Greeks and a number of other civilizations.

As with most herbs employed for folkloric healing or traditional herbalism, stinging nettles are often used fresh, although dried parts may be substituted for fresh ones. The most basic method of application is through oral ingestion, although topical applications are also commonplace. Stinging nettles are typically brewed as a tisane (usually decocted if fresh or infused when dry, although there are no hard and fast rules), and given to drink mainly as a diuretic. [4] It is traditionally prescribed as a remedy for urinary tract infections, all sorts of bladder and kidney problems, as well as for general detoxification. The stinging nettles are usually passed quickly over a flame or otherwise steamed prior to decoction to ensure that the hairy stinging trichomes are fully 'wilted' to avoid any possibility of discomfort which may arise from ingesting some minute hairs. Nevertheless, it should be noted that there are rare instances in which a slight discomfort or numbing of the oesophagus, tongue, and inner portions of the mouth may be felt, although this is not a general given. In most circumstances, younger leaves (with less pronounced trichomes) are selected for decocting, as the hairs typically soften and are eventually rendered harmless during the boiling process. The whole of the decoction can then be strained, sweetened or flavoured if desired, and drunk. Aside from being prescribed for various problems of the urinary tract, decoctions of stinging nettle may also be drunk as a febrifuge, a blood-purifying tonic, and as a general analgesic. [5] Very mild decoctions of the plant, drunk twice or thrice daily in minute amounts have even been prescribed by some herbalists as a means to naturally treat kidney and bladder stones, as well as general urological and digestive complaints. It has even been prescribed as a supplement for the management of diabetes and other types of endocrine disorders. [6] Folkloric medicine has also attributed anti-anemic properties to stinging nettles, with either the tea or the whole leaf itself (employed as a vegetable or otherwise incorporated as a seasoning herb to dishes) being given to remedy the deficiency. Typically mild concentrations have even been employed as a galactagogue since ancient times, although the consumption of the leaves more so than the intake of its extracted essences is said to be more efficient. Stronger decoctions of stinging nettle have even been employed in earlier times to treat asthma, congestion, and even tuberculosis, especially if combined with herbs such as mint and basil, or warming spices such as ginger root.

Very potent decoctions of stinging nettle have been employed since the time of the Ancient Greeks as a laxative, while topical applications rendered from the same potent decoctions have been used as antiseptics and anti-fungal agents. When combined with basil, rosemary, and thyme, it may be employed to medicate bandages or otherwise applied topically to open wounds and sores to facilitate healing. It was even believed that a wash made from strong decoctions of the leaves of the plant helped to lessen the pain of mending fractures and facilitated in faster healing (the former being due, perhaps, to its noted analgesic properties). Stinging nettle also has a long-standing reputation for being an excellent hair rinse, and was used in the Mediaeval times to help cut down on hair oiliness by controlling sebum production. It was also believed to add body, shine, and lustre to hair, and to help in the hastening of hair-growth, the retardation of hair-loss, and the management of common scalp problems like dandruff, psoriasis, eczema, and even lice infestations. Its cosmetic use remains quite popular to this day, with many organic (and even more synthetically-based) cosmetic products such as shampoos and conditioners containing extracts of stinging nettle. [6] Such products are typically marketed as counter-alopecia shampoos or conditioners as it capitalises on the traditional topical curative properties associated with stinging nettle.

Stinging nettles are unique in that the very allergic property it possesses is the cause for its therapeutic benefits, especially when the plant is employed topically. In folkloric medicine, the mature fresh leaves of the stinging nettle was often purposely applied to arthritic or rheumy parts (the stings being purposely inflicted in a processed called urtication) to act as a rubifacient. [7] The topical contact typically causes immediate redness, localised discomfort, and sometimes even swelling, but it does provide immediate (if short-term) relief from pain due to the anti-inflammatory compounds found in the plant's trichomes.

Most modern medicinal uses for stinging nettles are typically in the form of encapsulated supplements which are taken either for tonic purposes, or for the treatment of benign prostatic hyperplasia (BHP). [8] Unlike nettle tisanes which chiefly constitute the leaves of the plant, most encapsulated supplements typically contain the finely ground roots of the stinging nettle. Stinging nettle capsules have even been used by athletes and bodybuilders to increase the levels of free testosterone in the body, while cosmetic usage of such supplements usually veer towards its purported (but still largely unproven) ability to reverse the symptoms of androgenic alopecia.

Perhaps the most unexpected usage of stinging nettles is as a vegetable and as a primary ingredient for a number of unique beverages. Long employed as a vegetable and seasoning herb by many primitive cultures, stinging nettle is rich in vitamins A and C, as well as mineral compounds like calcium, manganese, iron, and potassium. Typically employed fresh (soaked or par-boiled prior to consumption to remove deaden the trichomes), it is typically pureed, or otherwise integrated into soups, stews, and other dishes as a seasoning or a pot-herb. It is typically fed to lactating women to help increase breast milk production, or otherwise eaten as a green leafy vegetable. Nettles have even been used in the production of some artisanal cheeses such as Yarg, and Gouda, as nettles possess properties which are similar to rennet. A number of cheeses that do away with traditional rennet are formed via the incorporation of extracts derived from nettles.

Beverages have also been made from nettle leaves (a practice quite common in England, Scotland, and Ireland until well into the Industrial Revolution with some small artisanal brewers continuing the practice to this day), with the most common being nettle cordial - a simple maceration of nettle leaves in sugar syrup which is afterwards strained and flavoured with lemon or orange juice (which also acts as a preservative). Stinging nettles may even be incorporated into the beer and ale manufacturing process, mixing its leaves, roots, and flowers along with (or in lieu of) hops.

Early societies also capitalised on the fibrous nature of nettles, employing its natural fibres to create cloth, paper, and rope - a practice common with the Native Americans as it was with the Early Chinese. While not as fine or soft as linen, it yielded a durable and hardy fabric that was the main source of cloth for many people under the lower classes of society. Today, an interest in cloth derived from nettles is experiencing a slow but steady resurgence as it is far more affordable than cotton or linen.

Esoteric / Magickal Uses

Being an ancient herb which plays an integral part in folkloric medicine stinging nettles also plays a large role in occultic usage. Typically employed as an herb of protection, it is usually encased in a medicine pouch, a juju bag, or otherwise incorporated into a mojo by Voodoo and Hoodoo practitioners as a defensive herb. It was a prime choice of stuffing material for poppets and was used for de-hexing and uncrossing spells. When burnt as a smudge or an incense, it helped to dispel sickness, drive away demonic entities and deter ghosts. Dried and powdered leaves or roots were sprinkled around the perimeters of a house to protect it from all sorts of malignant forces. Fresh garlands of stinging nettles were hung above sickbeds to help hasten recovery and drive away illness, while brews made from the leaves and roots were employed for purification baths and used as holy water for the charging and blessing of ritual tools. In some Mexican shamanic practices, nettles were dug out of the ground and asked to heal an ailing person by whispering their true name, as well as the name of that person's parents and ancestors, after which the root was sliced and burnt as an incense before the person. When combined with yarrow, it was used as a smudge to cast away negative forces and to dispel deep-seated fears. [9] Nettles were also an integral part in the Mediaeval Nine Herbs Charm, a healing concoction composed of nine herbs which was said to act as a sort of mithridate or panacea which acted as a panacea [10] said to counteract nearly all poisons and dispel any sort of disease with the only difference being that the Nine Herbs Charm was applied topically instead of ingested.

When made into cloth or paper, it was the best type of 'parchment' that could be employed for grimoires and amulets which required the use of words of power. Its usage for such purposes may have even gone to the extent that it was employed for binding contracts within the context of spell-woven deals. Cloth made from nettle fibres may even be sewn as medicine pouches, and can (in theory) provide similar protective benefits as its whole roots and leaves (resulting, subsequently, in a twice-hallowed protective amulet if encased with protective herbs and worn upon one's person).

Stinging nettles are generally safe when taken in moderate amounts for a short period of time, not extending beyond six months. Hypertensive individuals and diabetic persons are advised to take nettles only in spare to moderate amounts, with close monitoring. It should not under any circumstances be taken while under prescription medicine for conditions, as it may have very dangerous detrimental effects (although they are by themselves generally safe when taken solely). Pregnant women should steer clear of partaking of any products which derived from, or which contain stinging nettles, as it may act as an abortifacient even in moderate doses. While it is traditionally prescribed as a galactagogue, only minute amounts (in mild concentrations) should be partaken of. If possible, even lactating women should avoid consuming nettles as there is as yet no concrete scientific study which confirms its safety for breastfeeding infants, or if it changes (in any way) the nutritional properties of breast milk. Because of its highly irritating nature, individuals who have very sensitive skin or persons who suffer from allergies should likewise avoid partaking of products derived from, or that contain nettles to avoid possible adverse reactions.

Stinging Nettle - Other Names, Past and Present

Chinese: shun ma
Japanese: irakusa
Korean: sswaegipul
Sanskrit: vrscikali
Hindi: bichu / bichchhu
French: feuille d'Ortie / graine d'Ortie / ortie / ordtie des jardins
Spanish: ortiga
Italian: ortica
German: brennessel / brennnessel
Dutch: brandnetel
Anglo-Saxon: noedl (lit. 'needle')
Old English: stiðe
English: nettle / stinging nettle / nettle worth / common nettle / burn nettle / burn weed / burn hazel
Latin (scientific nomenclature): Urtica dioica / Urtica urens (small nettle; a separate specie under the same genus with similar medicinal properties, often mistaken for stinging nettle)

References:

[1 - 2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nettles

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stinging_nettle

[4] http://umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/herb/stinging-nettle

[5] http://www.webmd.com/vitamins-supplements/ingredientmono-664-STINGING%20NETTLE.aspx?activeIngredientId=664&activeIngredientName=STINGING%20NETTLE

[6] http://botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/n/nettle03.html

[7] http://www.herballegacy.com/Vance_Medicinal.html

[8] http://health.howstuffworks.com/wellness/natural-medicine/alternative/medical-uses-for-nettle-ga.htm

[9] http://www.janih.com/lady/herbs/magick/N.html

[10] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nine_Herbs_Charm

Main article researched and created by Alexander Leonhardt, Scientific Studies report by Dan Ablir. © herbs-info.com 2013

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