There really is such a thing as “plant blindness,” and this is a product of so many of us humans becoming increasingly disconnected from our planet and most especially its inhabitants who do not operate a smartphone. This is a story about a plant that bucks that trend.
Guest blog by Anne de Courtenay
Running Up that Hill
I first met Urtica dioica, commonplace as she is, in a very extraordinary locale. It was May of 2001. I’d taken the bus to Somerset from Wales where I had attended a fan convention for Queen (the band, not the sovereign). Glastonbury was a place that attracted the mystical yearning in the young me, and had nothing to do with the musical festival that disturbs the nearby countryside every year. 2001 was the first of many trips to a place that immediately claimed me.
On that particular day in May, I had just climbed the Tor in Glastonbury, England, for the first time and was surveying the multi-county view from the top.
An Englishman with carrot-orange hair and a rainbow knitted sweater materialized in front of me.
“Hello, I’m Antony,” he said. “What’s your sign?”
“Aquarius,” I replied. If this was a pick-up line, it was very dated and clumsy.
“In the Glastonbury Zodiac, the Tor is Aquarius,” he said brightly. “Would you like to see the egg-stone?”
“Yes,” I said (just the sort of thing, decades later, that I would surely advise my own daughter against).
Antony led me down the almost 90-degree drop off the steep side of the ancient hill. As my sneakers fought for purchase on the wind-stripped roots held in the clay, I grasped for anything that would prevent me from falling. “Anything” included a handful of Nettles. I snatched my hand back to myself and slid down a few feet, almost colliding with my guide.
Under a twisted hawthorn tree sat the egg-stone, a smooth white boulder engraved by who knows whom, and who knows when. It did look old. It did look mysterious. It and its siblings are purported remnants of Druidic activity on the Tor, maybe a thousand or more years before it became the site of a Catholic church, and even more years than that before Cromwell’s thugs destroyed the church and hanged the abbot of Glastonbury’s nearby Abbey at the very top.
I took some pictures of Antony over the egg-stone. He asked if he could have prints when I got them developed.
“Just send them to ‘Antony’ in Glastonbury,” he said, when I asked him for his mailing address. “Everyone knows me.”
Up we trudged back to the sunny top of the Tor, and to my complete shock, once again I met with Nettles – this time on the other hand.
I settled into my room that night with both hands stinging. It didn’t feel like a nuisance; more like some kind of initiation.
The Invitation of Nettles
After that experience, I quickly learned to identify Nettles, which grow all over the high places of that storied land, in enormous stands, as tall as a woman and at least a yard wide. They grow here in the United States too, having come over from the “Old World” long ago. Like their cousins in Britain, they tend to grow where once existed the outhouses and waste-water dumping grounds of long-gone homesteads.
Unsurprisingly, Nettles’ shocking sting is the reason you don’t see commonly see them in well-trafficked urban areas. It’s treated by most as a noxious weed to be avoided and eradicated at all costs.
I think the sting of Nettles, however, is key to developing a relationship with this incredibly useful and healing plant.
Plant blindness is a modern condition, made all the worse by most of us choosing to limit the bulk of our interaction with the physical, sensual world through the interface of our smartphones.
Some plants announce themselves with beautiful color, intriguing scent, or size. Nettle does not invite the eye or the nose, much less the touch. But once stung, one immediately comes into one’s body; the attention is focused; the blindness or reverie is shattered.
And really, that’s not a bad thing.
When an ancient energy wakes up in you, it’s likely to rattle your cage with image, not concept; that’s how it’s always been done. Images seem to be how the soul carriages its messages to you. To move and confound you, to unsettle, to get you to work … Walking blind a little. Falling into the nettles.
In light of this, the invitation of Nettle is just that: to pay attention. To heed one’s surroundings. To respect the living things – especially those ‘invisible’ plants – with whom we share our home. To fully inhabit the body, to get out of the ever-masticating mind. To reinvigorate oneself from the deep, instinctual centers of survival.
And perhaps, to find out if the herb is one you might benefit from taking.
Medicinal Uses for Nettle
The medicinal virtues of Nettle are well-known and discussed by every herbalist who’s ever put their thoughts on paper or on the Internet. There’s no reason for me to add to the throng, but here’s a very short list of notable herbalists on the topic:
A wonderful video compilation of herbalists David Hoffman, Rosemary Gladstar, Susun Weed, Brigitte Mars, and Matthew Wood talking about different uses for Nettles, from joint pain to food, to allergies, to anemia, to weak muscles and more
Other Ways of Understanding Nettles
Classifying herbs according to their properties aligned with those archetypes of the classical planets seems to be coming back in fashion. Seventeenth-century English herbalist Nicholas Culpeper may be the first and most famous herbalist to popularize this system of classification, and he places the ubiquitous Nettle of his homeland neatly under the rulership of Mars.
This classification makes immediate sense when you consider Nettles’ sting from its spiky formic acid-containing hairs, which is very martian indeed. Its ability to break up stagnant Qi and fluids resulting in joint pain and other swelling, and to restore function to weak muscles can also be considered martian. Possibly, its use in deficient Blood conditions such as anemia could be Mars-related insofar as its iron content plays a role (iron is the metal traditionally associated with Mars). Restoring tonus to such deep systems as the kidney/adrenals could be seen as infusing them with the “fighting” power of Mars as well.
Nettles as Food
Nettles are a mineral-rich food. The stinging quality of its leaves is neutralized by cooking. Recipes popular amongst herbalists and foragers are nettle pesto, nettle soup, and steamed nettles with goat cheese or feta. Generally, any situation in which spinach is called for is one in which nettles can and should be used, either in combination or even as a replacement. Its texture is more robust and its flavor deeper than spinach.
My favorite way to consume nettles is in my adaptation of the traditional Greek spinach pie, spanakopita. I use equal amounts of nettle and spinach in mine, and I call it “nettlespanakopita.” This recipe can be easily converted to a vegan one with the omission of the cheese and eggs.
Anne’s Nettlespanakopita (Nettle-Spinach Phyllo Hand Pies)
Equal amounts of fresh nettle leaves (young tops are best, no stems) and spinach, or any ratio you like, about 12 oz total
½ medium yellow onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tbsp chopped fresh or 1 tbsp dried dill
1 tbsp chopped fresh or 1 tsp dried mint
4 oz feta cheese, crumbled, to taste
Salt and pepper, to taste
¼ tsp nutmeg, grated, or to taste (optional)
1 1-lb package of phyllo dough, thawed
6 tbsp of melted butter (olive oil can be substituted)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
For the filling:
- Arrange nettle leaves (use gloves or tongs to avoid stinging) in the bottom of a basket steamer set over enough water to cover the bottom of a large pot, but not enough to come through the bottom of the steamer.
- Put the spinach leaves on top of that.
- Bring water to a simmer, then cover and steam over low heat for about 10 minutes.
- Remove basket and set aside to cool.
- Meanwhile, saute onion in olive oil until just translucent.
- Add garlic and saute until fragrant. Remove from heat to cool.
- (Alternatively, just use the raw alliums for a stronger flavor in the finished pie.)
- When they are cool enough to handle, gently squeeze as much water as you can from your steamed nettles and spinach. Chop finely.
- Add chopped nettles and spinach to the now cooled onion and garlic.
- Add the mint, dill, feta, salt, pepper and nutmeg to the nettle/spinach/onion/garlic mixture. Juice the half lemon into the mixture. At this point, taste for salt and add more if needed. Crack the eggs into this and stir until evenly combined.
Assemble the pies:
- Unfold your phyllo onto a large baking sheet or onto a large cutting board. Drape it with a damp towel to keep it from drying out as you work.
- Prepare a work area: arrange a large flat cutting board with your melted butter in a small bowl along with a pastry brush and pizza cutter nearby.
- Take one phyllo sheet onto your cutting board and brush all over with melted butter. Top with another sheet and brush with butter. If you want extra layers in your finished hand pie, you can repeat the process with a third sheet.
- Using your pizza cutter, cut the sheets long-ways into three even columns.
- In the bottom corner of one of the columns, place 2-3 tbsp of your filling.
- Fold the corner to the opposite side of the column to create a small triangle. Fold up to close the triangle. Continue folding until you have used up the whole column and are left with a triangular pie. Repeat with remaining phyllo until all of your filling is used up.
- Brush the tops of the completed pies with more melted butter.
- Arrange them on a baking sheet or two (use parchment paper for easy clean up), and bake in the oven until golden brown, about 35 minutes.
- Remove from oven and let rest for 10 minutes.
- Enjoy hot or at room temperature.