Net-of-needles: stinging nettles for repair and healing
Updated: Jan 16, 2022
Is there a more generous, available and yet prickly plant than urtica dioica? Her nature seems to be one of essential paradox. She is a plant that both hurts and heals, nourishes the soil yet flourishes where she is not wanted, weed and wonder all in one. She inspired one of my first herbal poems; would you like to read it?
get under the skin?
these lockpins for
little silica hairs that sing
touch me not
the hands of
wherefore this concertina,
this fine-spun barbed wire —
she’s learned to guard her
like anyone with minerals
a fence is only reasonable
she stands her ground
but never on her own —
part of her safety
lies in being prolific
the rest in
not giving up
Traditional and current uses
What are stinging nettles good for? Well, pretty much everything that can ail a body... The leaves and flowers made into a soup or tea will ease painful muscles and joints including arthritis; also useful for gout, anaemia, eczema, other kinds of itchy skin or any other allergic reactions. As a hair wash, nettle tea is good for both the follicles and the scalp (better than any salon product I have ever tried). Nettle seeds are a native superfood: full of protein, “good” fats, minerals and vitamins, especially for kidneys and the thyroid. The dried root made into a tincture can help with kidney stones, urinary tract issues and the prostate.
Along with mugwort, plantain, watercress, chamomile, crab apple, chervil, fennel and betony, nettle is named in the lacnunga 9-herb charm of medieval times, attesting to its long use in folk medicine.
Another beautiful association that comes up for me with nettles is the fairytale of the girl whose six brothers are turned into swans (synopsis adapted from Wikipedia):
The six swans and the nettle shirts A king gets lost in a forest, and an old woman helps him, on the condition that he marry her daughter. The king has misgivings but accepts. He has six sons and a daughter from his first marriage, and fears that the children will be mistreated by his new wife, their stepmother, so he sends them away and visits them in secret.
However, the new queen finds out about her six stepsons and decides to get rid of them. She sews six magical shirts and goes to the castle where the children are hidden, then tosses the shirts over the boys, transforming them into swans.
The brothers can only return to human form for a short time each evening. When their sister finds them, they inform her the only way to remove their enchantment is to make six shirts out of nettles. While she is weaving and sewing the shirts she may not laugh or speak for six years or the spell will not be broken. The girl agrees to do this and runs away, hiding in a hunter's hut and dedicating herself to gathering the nettles and sewing in silence.
Years later, the king of another country comes upon the girl, is taken by her beauty, and takes her to his court with the intention of marrying her. However, the king's mother hates her and does not consider her fit to be a queen. When she gives birth to their first child, the wicked mother-in-law takes away the child and accuses the queen of killing and eating him, but the king refuses to believe it.
The young queen gives birth to two other children, but twice again the mother-in-law hides them away and falsely claims that she has killed and eaten her babies. The king is unable to keep protecting her, and because she cannot speak up in her own defense, the queen is sentenced to be burned at the stake as a witch. All this time, she has remained silent, weaving and sewing the nettle shirts.
On the day of her execution, which coincides with the end of her six-year trial, the queen has all but finished making the shirts for her brothers. Only the last shirt is missing its left sleeve. When she is brought to the stake she brings the shirts with her. The six swans come flying through the air, and she throws the shirts over her brothers. They all regain their human form, with the exception of the youngest prince's left arm remaining a wing due to the missing sleeve.
The queen is now free to speak, and can finally defend herself against the accusations. She does so with the support of her brothers. In the end, the evil mother-in-law is the one who is burned at the stake as punishment.
To me this fairytale is like a fractal of the Feminine: each of the female characters holds one aspect, which is then mirrored, doubled or distorted by the others. The central figure of the sister typifies the ingénue, feminine innocence, which is contrasted with several stereotypes of the shadow feminine: the wicked stepmother (2x), the meddling mother-in-law and of course the wicked witch. The way the story is told implies that the girl is falsely accused of being a witch, and yet the central task she is given is to work her own magic: freeing her brothers of their stepmother's enchantment as swans, birds which are neither entirely wild nor entirely domesticated. This could be a metaphor for neglect, or simply for being excluded from the human family.
The medicine which will remove this curse and allow the boys to come into their own as princes turns out to be nettles! Yet the sister’s task of weaving nettle shirts is not one of those impossible fairytale demands like spinning straw into gold. Nettle fiber was traditionally (and sometimes still is) spun into thread that could be woven into cloth or even rope.
In both literal and symbolic form, making cloth from nettles is a process of transforming nature into culture, a wild and prickly plant into a covering for human skin. But there is more to lifting the curse than just making the shirts in their material form: the sister’s deep silence seems to indicate a kind of shamanic trance or dreamwork in which she is reweaving threads that were broken at a deeper level, perhaps with the death of the children’s mother, the king’s first wife, or the king’s own abandonment of them in a castle in the forest.
For me it is not a coincidence that nettle is chosen for the shirts, as it is a plant that can repair and strengthen the “fibers of one’s being” at the physical as well as energetic level.