I do know that March is over but Spring is coming slowly to my part of the world. Also, Scotland, being the equivalent to planting zone 8 or 9, sees nettles much earlier than we Iowans do- even on a good year. So sometimes, I have to make minor adjustments to the old ways. The nettles are just beginning to pop up to the point that I feel okay about harvesting them.
The Middle English name nettle descends from the Old English netele and which derives from a PIE root meaning “spin or sew” which is likely due to the fact that its fibers can be used for making fabric. The fact that using nettles for fabric was replaced by flax was simply one of many instances in which a plant that ruggedly grew in abundance was replaced by a plant, in this case flax, which needed specialized care and tending. The usefulness of nettles was not limited to its use in weaving. The sap was used to curdle milk in cheese making and it was also used to seal leaks in pottery.
Medicinal uses for the plant abound although care must be taken when researching old herbals to be very careful not to use stinging nettles in the place of red nettle known today as purple dead nettle (Lamium purpureum) which does not have stinging trichomes.
The Old English Herbarium mentions many uses including mixing nettle seeds with hemp to cool a burn. The Physicians of Myddvai used a poultice of crushed nettles wrapped in cloth to staunch a bleeding nose and although it seems as though perhaps that would be a job best left to red nettles, later in the text there are formulas which call specifically for red nettles. I think I shall still opt for yarrow for this purpose. The Myddvai herbal also recommends using nettle seeds as a peripheral circulatory agent as follows:
FOR A COLD IN THE LIMBS. § 427. Take the seed of nettles and boil in honey, anoint your feet and arms or other parts requiring it with the same, and it will remove the cold.
According to Allen and Hatfield, the most frequent use of nettle was as a spring tonic followed by using it to sooth rheumatic complaints and measles rash. As a spring tonic, infusions were made of the fresh leaves in the early spring in Ireland, Scotland and East Anglia to “cleanse the blood of impurities” and it is to this use which the proverb refers.
Modernly, nettle root is approved in the Commission E Reports and in Germany physicians prescribe nettles for rheumatic diseases due to the presence of both caffeic and malic acids which have demonstrated anti-inflammatory action. The roots contain a peculiar lectin–Urtica Dioca Aglutinate (UDA). It is theorized that UDA may have an inhibitory effect on white blood cells involved involved in autoimmune issues.
Muggins in May
Liath-lus, known in English as Mugwort is an herb that has long been associated with the night. Even the scientific name Artemisia vulgaris, speaks of its association with the moon and the dark being named for the Greek lunar deity. Due to its nocturnal nuances, the herb has also been associated with dreaming and divination.\r\n\r\nThe herb was more likely associated with Artemis in her role as patron of maternity and childbirth as it was commonly used by midwives to “restore menstrual flow, ease delivery and cleanse the womb.”
The herb has been attributed to many ancient uses. Pliny wrote that the wayfarer who has this herb tied about him will never grow weary and another folk tale insists that with mugwort under his feet, a man can walk 40 miles. The herb is frequently associated with mermaids. A mermaid in a different Scottish tale asks the young man lamenting the coming demise of his love:
“Wad ye let the bonnie May die i’ your hand, And the Mugwort flowering i’ the land?”
confirms that the herb was considered a medicinal. It was mentioned as a specific for consumption- an old-fashioned time term referring to pulmonary tuberculosis.
The chemical constituent of mugwort that is probably most studied thujone. Chemically thujone is classed as a monoterpene with neuroactive properties, and was used historically for hysterical fits. It also has “antimicrobial, anthelmintic and insecticidal properties.” Extremely large doses of this chemical constituent of the plant’s essential oil can cause mammalian convulsion.
Thujone occurs in many plants including the Artemesias, sage and yarrow but it does not occur uniformly. Concentration of the chemical varies among species and individuals of a species. I speculate that this is a result of a variety of factors including growing condition. As a secondary plant metabolite most likely produced as a protective measure, it makes sense that its concentration would vary in response to environmental factors.
Thujone was once considered to contribute to the toxicity of absinthe but research has proved otherwise. I will delve into that more when I cover Artemisia absinthium. My own experience with mugwort has been that of using it in many homemade incense blends and as a part of my full moon ritual blend. I don’t find it to be as bitter as its cousin wormwood, so I don’t use it as a part of a bitters blend. I do enjoy a vinegar made out of mugwort tops early in the spring, the acetic acid base draws out the many minerals in the plant and the acetum makes a nice digestive tonic.
Aside from the many medicinal and esoteric uses ascribed to mugwort, our lovely mermaid friend above though seemed to think of muggins as a useful addition to the diet. I decided to research its traditional uses as a potherb. In researching about I found that it was utilized, especially by the Highlanders, who used it early in the growing season when leaves are still mild in flavor. Sir John Hill affirms that the young leaves are “aromatic to the taste with a little sharpness.” This bitter sharpness likely enhances digestion.
Artemisia princeps –very similar to Artemisia vulgaris– is often mentioned as an ingredient in Japanese cooking . Mugwort soba is available on the market. It is also an ingredient in Korean recipes which refer to it as Ssuk. I”ve searched around for a few interesting recipes for those Asian foods which call for A. princeps thinking that now might be an interesting time to try a few, but I didn”t come up with many which means I may have to experiment.
There is this mugwort soba recipe which makes me think that I might have to give making some mugwort pasta, a try.
And I wouldn”t be true to my roots, if I didn”t link to at least one beer brewing recipe that calls for mugwort.
Black, Willam George. 1883. Folk-medicine: A Chapter in the History of Culture. London: Folk-lore Society by Elliot Stock 62 Paternoster Row, E.C.
David Allen, Gabrielle Hatfield. 2004. Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition: An Ethnobotany of Britain and Ireland. Portland: Timber Press.
John Gerard, Thomas Johnson. 1975. The Herball or General History of Plants: The Complete 1633 Edition as Revised and Enlarged by Thomas Johnson. New York: Dover Publications.
Pollington, Stephen. 2008. Leechcraft: Early English Charms Plantlore and Healing. Ely, Cambridgeshire: Anglo-Saxon Books.
Pughe, John. 1861. The Physicians of Myddvai; Meddygon Myddfai . London: Longman & Co