Before flax was known and cultivated, nettle fibre was used to weave both coarse and fine cloth. Nettle leaves were used to dye yarn as a good green colour was produced, while the root mixed with alum yielded a soft yellow dye.
The lesser nettle, urtica urens, is an annual, and a shorter version of the perennial common nettle urtica dioica. The sharp-pointed, jagged-edge leaves are smaller and the creamy-green flowers grow in little clusters, each containing both male and female. They bloom from June to September and are rather insignificant. Except for the stinging hairs, the small nettle is smooth and it only grows about 12 in (30 cm) high. It is a troublesome weed everywhere and seems to appear in the garden in great profusion as soon as winter is over.
In the kitchen, fresh picked young nettle tops can be boiled and eaten as a green vegetable. They look and taste like spinach and make a healthy addition to the diet. Nettles lose their sting in the cooking and also when they are dried. Never eat uncooked old nettle leaves as they can cause kidney damage.
The whole herb is cut down for drying in May or June just before the plant begins to flower. It is best to wear gloves and long sleeves when gathering the nettles, and to use scissors for cutting them. The herb should be gathered on a dry day and only perfect leaves used. They are then dried and stored in the usual way.
Nettle is considered to be a good all-round tonic, stimulating the digestion, improving the appetite and generally producing a feeling of well-being.
Nettle contains Vitamin C and a cup of tea taken last thing at night and in the morning will help to ward off colds and coughs. The tea used as a gargle is an effective remedy for a sore throat. A course of nettle tea, especially in the spring, will tone up the whole system, cleansing the blood of impurities and generally improving the health. To eat young nettle tops at the same time will make the treatment more effective.
* To make nettle tea: Pour a cup of boiling water on to a teaspoon of dried leaves, Leave to infuse for 10 minutes then strain. The nettles have a rather salty taste. The addition of a sweetener may not be required but honey can be added if preferred.
To relieve coughs, stuffy colds and other bronchial ailments, use nettles in the form of an inhalation.
* To make an inhalation: Pour boiling water on to 2 handfuls of dried nettles in a bowl. Cover the head and bowl with a towel and breathe in the fumes for 5— 10 minutes. Dry the face with cotton wool or a clean towel.
* An alternative way to clear a chesty cold is to burn dried nettle leaves and inhale the fumes.
Nettle has tonic and astringent properties and is an excellent herb for improving the skin and the hair. For the skin, nettle can be used in the form of a face pack.
* To make a face pack: Put finely chopped fresh young nettle leaves and tops into an enamel pan with a little water added. Bring to the boil and leave to simmer until the nettles form a thick paste. Clean the face in the usual way, spread the nettle pack on to a piece of muslin or cheesecloth and place over the face, avoiding the eyes and mouth. The eyes can be covered with cotton wool pads or balls soaked in cold water. Lie down and relax for 15 minutes. Remove the pack and wash the face in tepid water. In the spring a face pack used regularly over two or three weeks will clear the skin and improve the texture after the damaging effects of winter weather and central heating. Nettle and dandelion together also provide an effective face pack.
Nettle or nettle and dandelion together used in the bath will be refreshing and good for the skin.
* To make a herbal bath: Use dried herbs and make a strong infusion using 5-6 cups of boiling water poured on to about 8 handfuls of herb. Leave to infuse for 15-20 minutes. Strain the infusion and add directly to the bath water.
Nettle is good for the hair, stimulating the circulation to the scalp and improving growth. It will condition the hair and will also help to prevent excessive loss.
* To make nettle hair lotion: Finely chop a good handful of fresh young nettle tops and put in an enamel pan with 4 cups of water. Bring them to the boil, cover and simmer over a low heat for 1 hour. Strain and when cold pour into a stoppered bottle. Use the lotion freely twice or four times a week, massaging it into the scalp. Keep the lotion in a cool place and use within a few days. Fresh lotion is always more effective.
* To make nettle hair tonic: Use 2 handfuls of chopped herb with 2 cups of water and 2 cups of wine vinegar. Put all into an enamel pan, bring to the boil and simmer for 30 minutes. Strain carefully and pour into a screwtop bottle. Massage a little of the tonic into the scalp each day.
* ln conjunction with the hair lotion and tonic, use a nettle shampoo (see below) once a week to make the treatment more effective.
Add 2 handfuls of soapwort to 1½ cups water, simmer for 10 minutes. Cover and cool. Strain the mixture into a screwtop bottle. Take a handful of young nettle leaves, add to 1 cup of boiling water and leave to infuse for 10 minutes. Cool and strain into the screwtop bottle. Shake vigorously to blend.