by Allison Cruse
Illustration by Nora McBride
It’s a beautiful sunny day, like most days in Colorado’s southern San Luis Valley. My partner Aaron and I are heading south on a county road, leaving town behind and making our way to the mesas. Our destination is close as the crow flies, but the roads and rivers require us to meander through a couple tiny valley towns. We turn off onto a tiny, rutty, bumpy dirt road, no more than a trail, really. We pass over cattle guards, pass cows grazing, and pull up to park beside the crumbling adobe ruins of a structure long-abandoned. I grab a harvest basket from the back seat and we head to the spring.
The spring’s waters are truly an oasis in this dry mesa land. The cool water is certainly inviting on a summer day, but today I am more interested in the plant life this natural spring makes possible. My eyes search as we walk along, and it does not take long to find what I’m looking for. In fact, if you’re not mindful around this plant, it will find you well before your eyes spy it. The plant I’m searching for is one many try to avoid when exploring the water’s edge — the stinging nettle.
The stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) looks a bit like a giant mint, with a grooved stem and opposed, serrated leaves. And, like mint, nettles grow wild in watery places with rich soil. But beware – a careless brush of the hand against a stinging nettle is not a pleasant experience. Each tiny hair that covers the stalk and undersides of the leaves contains a droplet of formic acid. This can cause skin to itch and burn for a few minutes up to several days.
Why, then, am I searching it out? Because the stinging nettle is an incredibly beneficial plant used for food, medicine, dye, fiber and as animal fodder – and I love it. I’m excited to have found such a large nettles stand in this little oasis.
When harvesting nettles it is recommended to wear long sleeves and gloves. I wear neither. Today I plan to mindfully harvest the nettles with my bare hands. I’ve just re-read the nettles section of one of my favorite books, Healing Wise by Susun Weed. I learned that when you touch the nettle with attention and mindfulness, the acid stays in the hairs and does not sting. According to Susun Weed, “So long as you give her your full attention, she won’t have to sting you to get it.” I’ll admit, the skeptic in me is a little wary of such advice, but I’m also deeply trusting of the wise women herbalists who have come before me. I set down my basket, careful not to step on any nettle plants, and begin to harvest some of the tops of the plants nearest me.
I use my hands, firmly but gently holding onto the plant. To my delight and surprise, I do not get stung. At this moment I enter a whole new understanding – a transition from just learning about plants to learning from them.
And oh, the many, many uses of this plant. I take my harvested nettles home to make tinctures and a nettle goat-cheese casserole for dinner, and to dry for later use. So far most of my use of the stinging nettle has been medicinal and culinary, though I’m hoping to try my hand at nettle dye, nettle fiber, and nettle rennet for cheese-making.
The health benefits of nettles are many and varied. Name a body system and there is most likely a way that nettles can nourish, support and cure. Packed with vitamins, minerals and amino acids, nettles are an excellent whole-body nourisher. Regular use can help to reduce fatigue, restore adrenals, normalize weight and stabilize blood sugar. Nettles are a powerful ally for the kidneys, and are beneficial for the hormonal, nervous, digestive, respiratory and circulatory systems. Nettles are also an amazing women’s ally, nourishing and stabilizing energy in the reproductive system. Nettles can nourish the skin and hair, and are a very useful first aid as a hemostatic (stops bleeding).
Even the sting of the nettle has medicinal uses! My friend Luette, while traveling in Ecuador, experienced this first hand. She was intentionally stung with huge bundles of stinging nettles all over her body. When I first heard this story I was a more than a little shocked. Upon further research, it seems that “urtication” is a very old practice that is used to purify and heal through creating an intense physical and energetic stimulus to the body.
Want to see just what this green goddess of plants can do for you? One great way to introduce yourself to the nourishing power of nettles is through a simple infusion.
An infusion is basically a tea (herbs steeped in water) with potent medicinal benefits. Infusions can be made from fresh or dried plants, and are made with the above-ground parts of the plants (leaves, stems, flowers). Using a water-based remedy is one of the simplest ways to work with herbs (our bodies and plants being made, primarily, of water). An infusion is easily assimilated by the body, and so is a wonderful way to take in healing medicine.
Making your own nettle infusion could not be easier. You’ll need:
(1 ounce of dried leaves, or 1-2 handfuls of fresh nettles)
*A 1-quart jar
*A strainer of some sort
Simply measure an ounce of herb and add it to your jar. Pour boiling water over the herb and fill to the top. Put the lid on the jar and walk away. That’s it! Leave it for at least four hours, or overnight, then strain it and enjoy. I love to make a nettles infusion at night before bed, strain it in the morning and have it to sip throughout the day. I like it plain, but you can also add honey or another natural sweetener if you prefer.
Drink it and experience the energetic healing and whole-body nourishment that is the stinging nettle plant. Invite this herb into your life and maybe, just maybe, you’ll be forever changed.