Along with a passion for words, I also enjoy foraging. There’s something satisfying about finding local plants and using them in old recipes. Last weekend, for example, I took a walk to gather elder flowers and bottled up some elder flower cordial. I’m far from expert and take great care to pick sustainably and with careful identification, but with help from a handful of good books on the topic I’ve been expanding my hedgerow harvest from simple blackberrying to blackberry and apple jam, crab apple whiskey, and wild garlic pesto. Pinterest is a good starting place for information, if you’d like to try it yourself.
When I was walking back with my elder flowers I passed a large clump of nettles and remembered a strange fact about them from “Foraging” by John Lewis-Stempel – “In Scotland, the natives made cloth from nettles as late as the 18th century”.
Nettle’s word history ties in with the idea of cloth. Nettle entered English from Old English netele which in turn came from Old Saxon netila and related words netele (Middle Dutch), netel (Dutch), Nessel (German), and naedlae (Danish). All of these terms come from the root ned which means “to tie or bind”.
Twisted fibres used to bind are but a short hop to cloth via a loom and it wasn’t just done in Scotland. I recently read Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytales (for my ongoing quest to read the entire 501 Books list) and in one of them (The Wild Swans) a princess must knit nettle shirts to save her brothers from an evil queen. She suffers terribly during her task due to nettle stings.
The history of nettle cloth is well documented elsewhere online, if you’re curious, and dates back to 3000 B.C.. Nettle cloth, or ramie, which is like linen was widely used worldwide even during World War II, even next to the skin.
To nettle someone is a more recent verb use of the word. It means to irritate or provoke someone and is from the 1560s. I imagine touching a stinging nettle would provoke you alright.
If you’re unfortunate enough to be nettle stung I do have one piece of advice based on a foraging talk I attended a few years ago. The charming expert began with a demonstration of how to handle nettle stings. He was scathing on the common misconception that dock leaves help. They don’t and I can vouch for that from my own childhood. At best the application of dock (also called burdock) leaves makes you feel a little better as a distraction/attention thing.
He introduced us to another plant, smaller leaved than dock, which generally grows on the edges of paths worn through grassland – plantain (plantago major). Apparently it was called whitefoot by native Americans as it grew where the colonists walked. It has strong anti-histamine properties and is well known for this in some countries and totally unknown in others which is a shame. He demonstrated with sheer bravado, holding a fistful of nettles for a minute, showing us his red, welted hand (to groans from his audience), and then rubbing the welts with dampened, crushed plantain leaves. In half a minute the welts and pain were gone.
I’ve yet to try this myself but I spread the word and both my children have helped stung friends with good effect.
Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling. Stay away from those nettles, unless you’re making nettle soup.