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  • Amy

Nettles, Urtica dioica

Nettle may have got its name from the needle-prick rash it infamously imparts by injecting hollow, stinging trichomes into those who touch it. Alternatively, the name may have come from its textile history, as something used to sew.


It is 1918 Germany, and a mother tucks her precious four children into warm nettle sheets with warm nettle stew all warm in their bellies. She tells them the story of “The Wild Swans,” one that she heard as a child from her mother.

In the story, eleven brothers befall a curse by their evil stepmother and turn into swans. Their sister, so innocent the curse would not work on her, learns that she can save her brothers by making them each a coat of nettles. Her hands blister and burn with the sting of the nettle, but she spins nonetheless. She is nearly burned at the stake for practicing witchcraft, but she keeps spinning. In the end, her brothers are saved.

Perhaps the mother loves this story because she can feel a special feminine glory in it: the sacrifices women make, so different than men’s, but blistering and burning just the same.

In the morning, she prepares a strong nettle tea for her eldest girl, who has just commenced her “flowers.” When her husband came home from the war with rotting wounds and a hoariness of the lungs, she practically drowned him in a nettle root decoction. Too few men, of the few who returned at all, survived the illnesses they brought home.

Using nettle is so sensible, she does not ever remember having learned it. When she found these and other uses amongst her grandmother’s notes copied from Nicholas Culpeper Herbal filed with her recipes, she mused at whether Culpeper learned such things from the common women, or if the women learned from him and made the uses common.

In any case, without access to Britain’s cotton, everyone thinks nettle will be queen of the textiles. Even her husband’s uniforms were made of nettle. She learns, in a matter of years, that nettle is too difficult and expensive to cultivate in comparison to hemp and flax, and before the end of her life, the nettle textile industry folds and fades into time.

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