I approach the patch of weeds gingerly, gloving up both hands. The tall stems are so green they are almost incandescent, and shiver in the biting breeze. I begin to chip the earth away from around one plant with a digging stick, finding the ground contracted and reluctant. Not wanting to break the tuber, I de-glove to coax the fleshy white root free. Ouch! My efforts are rewarded with a sharp sting on the back of my hand.
My neighbour giggles, “They don’t call it stinging nettle for nothing.”
The sting turns to a tingle and I look up and grin. Behind her are dotted half a dozen other women semi-hidden amongst the nettles, the sun casting small flickers of light on their backs from between the canopy of pine needles. Elbows bow back and forth in the foraging, small piles of uprooted plants amassing next to them. The lilt of chitchat wafts through the air, as does the smell of smoke from our nearby campfire. It could be a scene from medieval Europe, and there is something about it that feels ageless, and completely natural.
Gathering back around the fire we separate roots, leaves and stems into piles. A pot of nettle tea appears and we take to the roots with mortar and pestle, a syncopated rhythm to the background of chatter.
There are 500 species of nettle (Urticaceae) around the world, including the ‘scrub nettle’ native to Australia.
It is one of those superheros of the plant kingdom that could easily fill a ‘101 uses’ book.
The herbal multi-tasker holds most strength not so much in its variety, but in potency. Higher in iron than any other plant, nettle is a veritable storehouse of vitamins A, C, D and minerals such as phosphorus and magnesium. Described as a tonic for the whole system, nettle is used to treat everything from blood disorders, depleted nerves, eye problems and respiratory problems to haemorrhoids and infectious diseases. Nettle roots contain 'phytosterols' which can be used for inhibiting the growth of tumours and regulating blood cholesterol and hormones.
Rich moist soils allow gardeners to grow crops of lush nettles, whilst the best native nettles can be found thriving in damp, shady forests. Provided their stings are neutralised by cooking or drying, they can be added as a spinach substitute to just about anything.
The spiky hairs, I learn, are evidence of their treasures, in line with other medicinal plants such as thistles that would be ravaged for their wealth were it not for unpalatable stings.
That evening is winter solstice and we celebrate the shortest day of the year with a simple ceremony of songs and intentions spoken around the fire. Our solstice feast is straight from our harvest - nettle and potato soup, and snapper cooked in paperbark on the coals drizzled with nettle pesto. Our take-home party bag is a jar of nettle root infused in apple cider vinegar which after a few weeks of steeping will be a daily medicinal tonic, and nettle stems bundled ready for drying and making into string and weaving fibres.
Back in my garden at home I am excited to see the nettle that disappeared during summer leafing again, and I admire it from a comfortable distance.
Reference: Pat Collins, “Useful Weeds at our Doorstep”