If you’re into plants and things, and notice all the stuff that’s going on with plants-as-food-and-medicine (and there seem to be plenty loads of you out there, which is good), you may have clocked that this week in the UK is ‘National Be Nice To Nettles Week’. Be nice to nettles. What would it mean to be nice to a nettle? Maybe to go out and have a chat with one, or with one and its clan, as they’re standing greenly and erectly in a patch at the end of your garden, or sitting up against wire fencing on a city street, or dancing in the wind below a hedgerow. You can’t give it a nice stroke though, or a hug… which is why I think this national week has a bit of a silly moniker.
The thing is, it’s people not being nice to Nettles that often allows them to be what they are – they are one of those herbs that famously ‘follow where man has trodden’ as many botany handbooks have it. We don’t need to caress and plant and tend Nettles – they are wild and spring up by their own wild selves each spring (unless they are shorn of course by not-very-Nice council people with heartless mowing machines). I don’t know how far a domesticated Nettle plot would differ from its untamed counterpart in its offering of rich earthy minerals and vitamins and blood-cleansing tonic activity and green goodness for soup and risotto and support for arthritic joints and most importantly of stinging power to urticate yourself with (please refer to ancient healing practice of beating oneself with Nettles on inflamed joints, or ancient Roman action to import Nettle seeds to this island on invading it, in order to counter the abominable cold through such practice). However, it is an eternal relief to me to see big wild patches of those serrated leaves under the trees and the dreamy green air around their straight elegant stalks, and the sticky Cleavers shooting up between them, all around us at this time.
At the first event of Healing Foods and Plant Medicine, a monthly series at Passing Clouds in Dalston, east London, looking at medicinal plants and exploring body ecology/contemporary health issues, around 70 people in a room did a mass herb tasting. This was brilliant. Herb tasting – usually of teas – was the way that I learnt to learn about herbs when I first started my herbal medicine course in Scotland five years ago. It was always the most interesting way to meet a plant if you were sitting in rainy Govan rather than roaming a rainforest, and often the most useful (of course apart from seeing and touching and tasting a plant in its own place). At Passing Clouds this February in our groups, we sniffed and smelt, sipped and savoured an unknown green-brown tea that was ceremonially poured into our cups, and I was transported back to our little classroom of herb students.
‘Salty!’ ‘Fishy’ ‘Mossy’ ‘An old iron spoon in my mouth’ ‘A freshwater river inside…’
were some of the cries that rose from the groups. These were all reactions to tasting our earthy weed spinster sister the Nettle (whose sting, by the way, cleverly makes you notice but does no real harm, as Christopher Hedley points out). What’s startling sometimes when tasting herbs is that all kinds of different people form similar responses to their experience. They have very different, individual, subjective ones as well – see the river comment above – but interestingly on my second tasting at Healing Foods… which was of another springtime plant whose ace yellow flowers, green leaves, hollow stems, milky sap and sweet and bitter roots all have healing purpose and play in them – one comment rose up more than once from the different groups.
‘A certain kind of… naughtiness.’
‘Feels a bit, naughty to me!’
This reminded me of when we first tasted Dandelion root tea at the Scottish School. I was overwhelmed-ly overtaken by the feeling of a bright, sunshiny, spinning little gold king – a naughty king. Funny this word came up both times. What is it about drinking Dandelion that brings the word ‘naughty’ and its associated sensations from the depths of mind and body? Here is the ineffable thing of plants and what they give us that is beyond language and is based in physical – or some other kind of – feeling. What does this mean for our interpretation of the Dandelion and how we can use it? What is it telling us? Did people in olden days have different, or simpler ways of understanding this feeling? In Glasgow we were taught that it’s this that’s most important for herbalists, and indeed anyone, in our learning journey – the experiencing of the plant and its energy.
Many questions, and I don’t know the answers. The scientists might step up to shoot me for having the foolishness to ask such questions… but I think it’s very very interesting. Responses on a postcard please (or a parchment woven from Nettle fibres). Did you ever taste a naughty Dandelion?