Nettles

Plant: Nettles
Botanical Name: Urtica urens, U. dioica, and U. pilulifera

Synonyms, Country Names: According to Henry NIcholson Ellacombe, in The Plant-Lore and Garden-Craft of Shakespeare (Ellacombe) England has two native species of Nettles (Urtica urens and U. dioica) with sufficiently strong stinging qualities, and also a third (U. pilulifera) which is very curious in its manner of bearing its female flowers in clusters of compact little balls and far more virulent than either of the native species. Both the Latin and the English name of the plant record its qualities Nettle is (etymologically) the same word as needle, and Urtica is from uro, to burn.
Shakespeare calls the plant nettles in 12 of the 13 plays in which it is referenced. In Twelfth Night, Sir Toby says “How now, my Nettle of India..” Act 2., Scene v. Ellacombe indicted that this name had puzzled the commentator and that it is probably not the true reading; but, if it is the true reading, it may only mean a Nettle of extra-stinging quality. Botanical.com, the electronic version of “A Modern Herbal,” published by Mrs. M. Grieve in 1931, (Botanical.com) gave the names of two species of Indian nettles, which are most virulent. She further states that the Urticanceae Family is widely spread over the world and contains about 500 species. She lists a number of common names including common nettle, stinging nettle, white dead nettle, and others.

Symbolic:

Quotations: Crown’d with rank Fumiter and Furrow-weeds,
With Burdocks, Hemlock, Nettles, Cuckoo-flowers.

Cordelia, King Lear, Act IV, Scene 4.
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Crow-flowers, Nettles, Daisies, and Long Purples.

Queen Gertrude, Hamlet, Act IV, Scene 7.
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He’s sow’t with Nettle-seed.

Antonio, The Tempest, Act II, Scene 1.
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Look for thy reward
Among the Nettles at the Elder Tree.

Saturninus, Titus Andronicus, Act II, Scene 3.
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How now, my Nettle of India?

Sir Toby, Twelfth Night, Act II, Scene 5.
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Yield stringing Nettles to my enemies.

King Richard, Richard II, Act III, Scene 2.
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I tell you, my lord fool, out of this Nettle, danger,
we pluck this flower, safety.

Hotspur, Henry IV, Part I. Act II. Scene 3.
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The Strawberry grows underneath the Nettle.

Ely, Henry V, Act I, Scene 1.
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I’ll spring up in his tears, an ‘twere a Nettle against May.

Cressida, Troilus and Cressida, Act I, Scene 2.
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We call a Nettle but a Nettle, and
The fault of fools but folly.

Menenius, Coriolanus, Act II, Scene 2.
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Goads, Thorns, Nettles, tails of wasps.

Laertes, The Winter’s Tale, Act I, Scene 2.
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If we will plant Nettles or sow Lettuce.

Iago, Othello, Act I, Scene 3.
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Who do bear thy yoke
As ‘twer a wreath of roses, yet is heavier
Then lead itselfe, stings more than Nettles.

Palamon, Two Noble Kinsmen, Act V, Scene 1.

Cultivation: Unless otherwise noted, the information in this section and the following section come from Botanical.com. Common Nettle (U. doiica) has heart-shaped, finely-toothed leaves tapering to a point with green flowers in long, branched clusters springing from the axils of the leaves. Usually a plant will bear either male or female flowers, hence the name of the plant, dioica, which means two houses.
The Nettle flowers from June to September and usually attains a height of 2 to 3 feet. Its perennial roots are creeping, so it multiplies quickly, making it somewhat difficult of extirpation. The whole plant is down and also covered with stinging hairs. Each sting is a very sharp, polished spine, which is follow and arises form a swollen bse which is composed of small cells containing the venom, an acrid fluid, which is said to be bicarbonate of ammonia.
The other two species of Nettle found in Britain are both annuals. The Lesser Nettle, (U. urens) is widely distributed and resembles the Common Nettle in habit, but has smaller leaves and the flowers in short, mostly unbranched clusters, male and female in the same panicle. It rarely attains more than a foot in height and is a common garden weed.
The Roman Nettle (U. pilulifera), bearing its female flowers in little compact, globular heads, is considered a doubtful native. As noted above its stinging hairs contain a far more virulent venom than either of the other species. It occurs in waste places near towns and villages in the east of England, chiefly near the sea, but is rare.
Ellacomb advises us to keep Nettles out of the garden by every means.

The Useful Plant: The juice of the Nettle proves an antidote for its own sting, ad being applied will afford instant relief. The juice of the Dock, which is usually found in close proximity to the Nettle, has the same beneficiall action.

“Nettle in, dock out.
Dock rub nettle out!”

Is an old rhyme.

The sting of a Nettle may also be cured by rubbing the part with Rosemary, Mont or Sage leaves
According to both Ellacombe and Botanical.com the Romans brought some of the Roman Nettle seed with them, and sowed it in England for their use to rub and chafe their limbs when frozen by the cold of Britain.
Nettle referred not to the instrument that holds the thread but to the fact that at one time Nettle was used for thread for sewing.
Ellacombe tells us the following. The poet Campbell says in one of his letters—"I have slept in Nettle sheets, and dined off a Nettle table-cloth, and I have heard my mother say that she thought Nettle cloth more durable than any other linen." It has also been used for making paper, as well as for rope-making.
The burning property of the juice is dissipated by heat, enabling the young shoots of the Nettle, when cooked, to be eaten.
Ellacombe provides several literary references to eating Nettles. They were used for packing fruit to ripen it.

Folklore:

Personal: My introduction to Nettles was putting my hand and arm into an unidentified jungle of plants to pull them out only to be amazed by the stinging and redness on my arm. They are now approached very cautiously unless they happen to be behind me in the Shakespeare Garden.

Carol Mellinger
January 26, 2014