Consider the Lowly Nettle
Weeds as the ‘Bad Guys’
The nettle is a weed. Understandably, weeds get a lot of bad press. Who hasn’t despaired at the sight of couch or kikuyu mercilessly invading the vege plot, blackberry or gorse spreading over a paddock, lantana, banana passionfruit or bridal veil creeper strangling forests, ivy, berberis and honeysuckle taking over some urban remnant of bush? To see such smothering can fill one with a deep sense of powerlessness, a temptation to wage all all-out war by all means necessary.
Weeds are thus widely considered the ‘bad guys’ of the plant world, the botanical equivalents of those other ‘bad guys’, the exotic ‘feral’ animals. In order to protect their own ‘good guys’, farmers, gardeners and bush-regenerators spend billions annually trying to poison them, often using persistent, highly toxic chemicals that help breed toxin-resistant super-weeds and accumulate in organisms and ecosystems with highly detrimental effect. There is of course a case for judiciously using low-risk herbicides in some situations but a simplistic, all-out ‘war on weeds’ is about as rational, intelligent and productive as an all-out ‘war’ on drugs, crime or terrorism: it can be ‘won’ only by eventually destroying yourself. Weed management that is not ecologically informed is counter-productive and can only make matters worse in the long run.
A weed is commonly defined as a plant in the wrong place. Like anything else, what constitutes a weed is then of course quite in the eye of the beholder. The cattleman’s Patterson’ s Curse, toxic to his cattle, is simultaneously the apiarist’s Salvation Jane, beloved by his bees. The cattle or dairy farmer’s productive kikuyu will cause havoc for remnant native grasses and for the horticulturalist. Blackberries are a grazier’s bane as they reduce pasture land and shelter rabbit dens; they can also be an ornithologist’s and gourmet’s delight as they provide important protective habitat for diminishing native small birds as well as nutritious fruit and jam.
Of course not only exotic plant species can become classified as weeds. The grazier’s native ‘woody weeds’ in western New South Wales and Queensland are nature’s attempt to heal herself by sending in the nitrogen-fixing and soil-stabilizing acacias to lay the foundations for an ecological succession back to complex open woodlands on agriculturally ravaged land. People committed to developing new, productive forms of truly sustainable eco-agriculture in those regions would not be suppressing but encouraging and productively using such acacia successions as soil improvers, browse, coppice fuel, sources of tannins, bird habitat/pest control etc.
Thus weed explosions are most often indicators of disturbed ecosystems. To blindly and manically attack weeds using chemicals or other means can often mean further disturbance: one is locked in a vicious circle. Industrial agriculture itself causes many of the weed problems it then tries to mercilessly and vainly eradicate. Viewed ecologically, weeds are usually profusely seeding annuals, pioneer species, opportunists and generalists (‘r-strategists’) who occupy temporarily vacant niches in disturbed ecosystems and often out-compete the specialized niche species of more stable systems (‘k-strategists’). Quite like the human species in fact: we are flexible, skilled generalists, proliferate and compete like mad and rapidly colonize the world if given half a chance. We create and thrive off all forms of ecological disturbance. We notoriously bring our weeds with us to new lands. Perhaps we hate weeds so much because, like ‘bad guys’ and terrorists, they are our unacknowledged ‘other’, they hold up an unflattering mirror to us.
So perhaps it’s time for a little more mature acknowledgment and even, at times, outright appreciation, of weeds, for a movement away from the simplistic, terroristic binaries of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ to a more ecological, complex and integral paradigm. As it is not a major (‘noxious’) weed in Australia, perhaps the lowly nettle might be a good place to start.
The Nettle Family
The nettle family, the Urticaceae, containing about 500 species, is widely spread throughout the world, mainly in the tropics. The Tall or Greater Nettle (Urtica dioica) is a European/Asian/North American weed apparently now in New Zealand but not yet in Australia and which can be 50-150 cm tall. The native Scrub Nettle (Urtica incisa) can be 60 cm or higher with leaves 5-10 cm long, common along creek banks and rainforest margins and sometimes in waste places and along roads. The flowers are on slender spikes. It is an important plant for the Australian Admiral butterfly. The introduced Small or Lesser Nettle (Urtica urens) is only 30 to 60 cm tall with 2-5 cm leaves, an European weed now fairly common on shaded pastures in cooler areas and well-fertilized sections of farms and gardens (e.g. poultry yards). The flowers, unlike those of the native Scrub Nettle, are in a short cluster in the leaf axils. The Small Nettle is the nettle species we would be mainly dealing with.
- Sacred to Thor, the god of thunder: to placate him, nettles were burned in the hearth during approaching storms and placed in milk and beer barrels to reduce their curdling in the humidity; a bunch of nettles was often hung from doors to protect the house.
- Nettles were allowed or planted around but at a distance from houses to ward off unwelcome visitors and evil spirits.
- The seeds were considered an aphrodisiac and drunk soaked in wine; lovers poured the water from boiled seeds onto their lover’s threshold to encourage infatuation; because of these lustful links, monastery gardens tried to eradicate nettles (nettles were known as Devil’s Leaf in Somerset, Heg-Beg in Scotland, Hoky Poky in Devon).
- To ascertain whether a bride was still a virgin or a sick person would heal, their urine was poured onto a nettle: a positive result was guaranteed if the plant remained green.
Farming and Horticultural Uses
- Humus activator. Breaks down quickly, reputed to encourage worms. Adds nitrogen, potassium, iron, calcium, sodium and chlorine to and activates compost heaps.
- Companion plant: ‘plants grown with nettles really do seem less prone to pests and disease and grow better’ (French 69). Nearby herbs seem to taste better and contain more aromatic oils. Bio-indicator of humus- and nitrogen-rich soils.
- Foliar plant tonic. Make tea by soaking 7-21 days or boiling for 10 minutes and straining. Spray on plants, also effective against aphids.
- Fodder and tonic. Mineral-rich. Dried nettles and seeds increase milk in cows, egg production and fattening in poultry and benefit digestion in horses.
- Worm preventative; drench of nettles boiled in whey an old peasant remedy for round and thread worms.
- Juice given in- and externally encourages shine and bloom in horse coats.
- Fly Deterrent (fresh bunch hung in pantry).
- Fibre. Nettle stems were much used like hemp or flax to make linen, fine cloth, coarse sacking and cordage.
- Paper. Once much used in France.
- Packaging and preserving. Dried nettle was used with fruit, veges, cheese.
- Fuel. Nettle oil pressed from seeds was used in oil lamps in Egypt.
- Dye. Permanent green dye from decoction of leaves and stems. Yellow dye from roots when alum added.
- Huge source of chlorophyll and young shoots rich in Vitamin C. Thus Spring blood-purifier and anti-scorbutic (young leaves).
- Rich source of iron, thus tonic for anaemia and excessive menstrual flow.
- Stimulates digestive system and appetite.
- Decoction good against diarrhoea.
- Remedy for ailments of urinary tract and for haemorrhoids.
- Juice of leaves or roots, mixed with honey or sugar, for relief of bronchial and asthmatic symptoms (also dried leaves were smoked).
- Powdered seeds or nettle diet used for reducing obesity and diabetic symptoms.
- Promotes milk flow in nursing mothers.
- Reduces susceptibility to rheumatic problems. Rubbing nettles on skin (urticification) used in many cultures for rheumatic pains.
- Roots used to treat enlarged prostate.
- Fresh juice or dried nettle infusion used for arresting internal bleeding.
- Boiled leaves used as poultice for sprains.
- Infusion of fresh leaves as healing lotion for burns.
- Juice from whole plant is an excellent hair tonic.
- Simmered young leaves (4 mins, water, closed pan)
- Puree (add butter, seasoning, chopped onion, simmer and mash further 5 mins)
- Soup (boil, puree, melt butter and flour with salt and pepper, beat in milk, boil up, simmer 5 mins, add puree mix). The traditional German spring Nine Herb or Maundy Thursday soup contained nettles.
- Haggis (mix nettle puree with chopped leeks or broccoli, cabbage, fried bacon, partially cooked oatmeal or rice and barley, boil for 1 hour in muslin bag, serve with gravy)
- Stock (boil handful in a cup of water for 20 mins; tastes like beef stock)
- Tea (boil and simmer 20 mins, let cool and strain. Reheat, improve with a little onion or garlic; tastes like beef tea, a good Winter drink)
- Beer (a pail of young nettle tops, 2 gal cold water, 2 oz bruised ginger, half handful of dandelion and clivers/goosegrass; boil gently 40 mins, strain, stir in 2 cups brown sugar; when lukewarm, add 1 oz yeast on toasted bread; keep warm 6-7 hours, remove scum, add tablespoon cream of tartar, bottle, tie corks securely).
- Rennet substitute (for cheese making).
Over thirty human uses. Not bad for a bad guy.
[Sources: de Bairacli Levy, J. 1991, The Complete Herbal Handbook for Farm and Stable; Fairley, A. & Moore, P. 1989, Native Plants of the Sydney District; French, J. 1989, Organic Control of Common Weeds; French, J. 1990, A to Z of Useful Plants; Grieve, M. 1973, A Modern Herbal; Low, T. 1991, Wild Herbs of Australia and New Zealand; Lust, J. 1974, The Herb Book; Mabey, R. 1972, Food for Free; Plants for a Future (online, UK), Useful Weeds; Richberg, I.-M. 2004, Altes Gärtnerwissen; Thomson W.A.R. 1978, Healing Plants. A Modern Herbal]
The Unsettling of Nettles
Over chook yards, wastelands, Thor’s thundering din
once hammered our stinging stems up from the moist
& shitty places. We carpet bombed the soil
with fakirs’ nail-beds for rheumatics to roll in.
Chockas with C & iron, we wacked your winter-
dead bodies with the juice of Spring, pushed
the milk through breasts & udders, stemmed blood,
covered horses with coats that coruscated like water.
Now you wage chemical war. Call us weeds.
Prefer your neat wastelands of cotton, those
puffy white slaves made for your machines.
The last river emptied, cotton’s chemical crutches
dispersed through nature’s skin & bones,
will you long for the fine cloth our needles spun?