by Thea Summer Deer with Jamie MacLeod
Sipping our freshly harvested and dried batch of wood nettle infusion, we can’t help but ponder on the goodness contained within this chlorophyll rich plant. Her color is an iridescent, deep forest green, singing with aliveness. The word psychedelic comes to mind. My apprentice, Jamie, is too young to truly appreciate the reference to an era that exploded into our consciousness more than four decades ago. She wasn’t even born yet. But this is the beauty of our journey together with the wood nettle, a journey that starts with a hike into the forest to teach and learn about plants that can heal us. It is a timeless journey: An older woman with long white hair makes an offering to the earth and a prayer of gratitude to the spirit of the plant she is gathering. The younger woman, strong and lithe, bends to cut and gather the herb with her long blonde curls falling around face and shoulders.
We are carrying on an ancient wisdom tradition. It is the Wise Woman Tradition. And while much of what we know about these plants originated in the Western European Herbal Tradition, which was largely lost during the inquisition and systematic persecution of “witches,” we are keeping it alive and carrying it forward in a new way. Aided by the tools of science we know much more about these healing plants than we did in our ancient past. When we bring the healing modalities of the ancients together with the best of current models of medicine a new model emerges: one in which the whole person is seen in the light of a new understanding. The Wise Woman model teaches us this, and to trust our inner guidance and intuition. Wisdom comes as a result of marrying heart and mind.
Curious about the medicinal properties of wood nettle as compared to its cousin the stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) we can only assume that it offers similar benefits. It is surprising how little information we could find to confirm this. It becomes immediately apparent that more research is needed. We sip our wood nettle infusion and confer. It clearly holds the same energetic properties: cooling, slightly bitter, salty and astringent.
Wood nettle is native to the eastern half of North America and is prized by foragers as food and medicine. Its species name, canadensis is a term used in taxonomy to describe species that are indigenous to North America, whereas stinging nettle is native to Europe. Wood nettle has fewer stinging hairs, but don’t get too cozy with it as Jamie’s gentle brushing action still ended her up with a few painful stings. Or you could get cozy and experience the practice of urtication, a folk remedy that dates back over two thousand years. Urtication includes intentionally stinging oneself to provoke inflammation and stimulate the immune system providing relief from arthritic pain and rheumatic complaints. By actively stinging the skin around an affected joint the inflammation will subside for up to a week. This topical application makes use of nettles’ rubefacient action, which produces redness of the skin by causing dilation of the capillaries and increasing circulation.
It was a beautiful cool day in the mountains when we found wood nettle growing in the woods near my house. A perennial, we harvested it only a couple of weeks before it flowered in mid June. One of the ways wood nettle can be distinguished from its close relative is by its alternate rather than opposite leaves that are larger and wider with more rounded bases. There are also differences in the characteristics of their flowers. Wood nettle is monoecious plant, meaning it holds both male and female flowers on a single plant while stinging nettle is a dioecious plant having both make and female strains with the flowers appearing on the female plant. Both plants, however, are in the same nettle family, urticaceae.
Nettles have a long history of medicinal use and as a remedy in the treatment of arthritis. Nettle leaf contains active compounds that reduce inflammatory response. It is also used as galactagogue to increase mother’s milk and promote lactation. Nettle root extracts have been extensively studied in human clinical trials as a treatment for the symptoms of benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH).
As a food, wood nettle has a flavor similar to spinach when cooked and is rich in vitamins A, C, iron, potassium, manganese, and calcium. It is a tonic that builds the blood. Native Americans harvested the young plants in the spring and boiled them as a pot-herb. They also knew about its ability to strengthen and support the whole body and its use as general detoxifying remedy. The Meskwaki, a Native American people originally from the Great Lakes region, used the inner bark of the wood nettle to make a nettle thread that was used in the making of cattail mats. A fiber obtained from the stem is used for making nets and cordage and is considered 50 times stronger than cotton.
So why is there so little information available about wood nettle? She must be the best kept secret in the Appalachian mountains where we found her growing not too far from the creek in the Pisgah National Forest. For the record, we found her to be every bit as tasty, and a wee bit less inhospitable as her cousin, although you still wouldn’t want to rub her the wrong way. And with all of the known benefits of stinging nettles, from her chlorophyll rich fortifying tonic to her ability to restore the kidneys and adrenals ~ inquiring minds want to know what woodland secrets wood nettles has yet to tell. As renowned herbalist David Hoffman says, “When in doubt, give nettles.” Does this apply to wood nettle? Surely someone is the keeper of this mystery ~ and I’ll bet it’s the wood nettle fairy. I’ll be green with envy if you find her first. I have a feeling wood nettle knows the secrets of the earth.
Jewelweed is the antidote for nettle stings ~ watch for her story in an upcoming blog post.
All photos ©2013 by Thea Summer Deer except stinging nettles hair.
To make a nettles infusion: Place 1 ounce of dried herb in a quart jar cover with boiling water, cover and let stand 4 hours or overnight. Strain and drink one quart daily.
Medical Herbalism by David Hoffman
Wisdom of the Plant Devas by Thea Summer Deer