Monday, 29 March 2010

Nettle has a friend

Welcome spring, the violets sing.

People living a more earth centered and older way of life than those of us in the "developed world" seem to have an uncanny understanding about how to use wild plants as good medicine. Just look at the willow, the forerunnner to aspirin, or foxglove from which one of the major heart drugs evolved, or Quinine from a south American tree originally known as "Jesuits bark" which provided the first cure for malaria. All of these medicines and many more were being used in the traditional and folk medicines of people here and around the world for centuries and probably many millenia, all without the help of microscopes, and all the other paraphanalia of the laboratory to tell them what the herbs did.

It seems that our Ancestors had an intimate knowledge of plants as medicines that they gained through other means than modern science, you could say that they had a science of their own which has been proven over centuries. You see those who came before us were no less clever than us, and they not only only found out what worked, but also continued to use it and pass on that knowledge to their descendents.

The interesting question is; how do we regain the origianl relationship we once had with the plants which was so accurate in telling our ancestors about all these medicinal uses?

The first way to get closer to this way of interacting with nature and unlocking this healing knowledge is to take on the same vision of the world that our ancestors had. They saw the world and the plants as living entities which had their own ways and characteristics. They didn't think that this world was just about human experience, but that we are just a small part of a much greater mystery and story that is being continually played out all around us all the time, so truly we are never alone! When we start to explore this way of being with plants for ourselves all kinds of interesting insights come up.

Well the more I get to spend time with the plants I find them to be more like the people around me. You see they have their ways, and their habits, preferences and even moods. But then if we all come from the same stuff, earth, air, fire, and water why should we not all share similar characteristics in other ways as well?

So lets take the Nettle we've already met, and you know what, it usually has a companion, inseperable they are, like a man and wife, together for life ~perhaps thats not the way much anymore for people, but with plants they haven't caught up so fast with this passion for serial relationships as we call them. Can you imagine the Ivy, gets in a strop with that ancient old Oak its been growing on for ever and swans off to snuggle up to a mushroom? Or the honeysuckle, so bored after all those years lounging around on top of the thicket, says "I'm off my dear, time for a bit of time with a chap who's in the flow of things, not an old stick-in-the-mud like you."- and goes and takes up with the watercress growing in the stream? Doesn't really work now does it!

So back to that story we were having; now if you look closely, you'll often find those rough-tough-keep-out-of-my-patch-or-I'll-sting-you-so-I-will Nettles nestling up to another plant, so tight together its like the two can't bear to be separated. And that Nettle companion isn't too easy to spot at first, just like that old couple down the lane, they have come to look a bit like each other or in this case just like each other. But actually this soul mate of the butch nettle is quite different in character, all soft and yielding, no rough prickly stemmed thing but much more delicate and fragile when you come to grab her. Her leaves are just like her mate, green and saw edged, but its only when you've sussed her out that you start to see that she is actually quite different, then you don't have to make a painful mistake and get stung by the wrong one.

Now nettles proper have different flowers to what we think of as flowers, they wouldn't make much of a bouquet, being straggly little things all hanging off a thin green string, looking more like a bunch of aphids at a party than something you'd give on Mothers day. But if you look closely at these pretender nettles you'll see the prettiest little flowers ever,always growing in a pair neatly next to each other lined up under those leaves, white and bell shaped. Now the oldun's who lived in the country used to say that these little flowers were the shoes of the little people, hidden safely away while they walked about barefoot in the morning dew.

Its because of these dainty white flowers we give this nettle lookalike the name White Dead Nettle, dead not because its time is over and its gone to plant paradise, but because it doesn't have the sting- it's dead to the touch.
Now if you like the bees, and especially the humble bumble you'll have to give this weedy interloper into your neat borders a bit of leaf room, as there ain't a better feeding place in all the world for that little buzzy bumbling velvety friend of ours.

Those flowers could not have been better made for this humble bee as they are shaped to fit a bumble like a glove, the sweet nectar that awaits them is stored down the end of the long tube at the back of the flower, and its only the bumbles extra long sucking tube that can reach it. So no reward for any other creature that drops by, and any little sneeking snatching insect is kept out by lots of little hairs in the tube.

Now this gentle giving plant lives cheek by jowl with spiky nettle, she's like the gansters moll, all fluffy against his meanness. She's the one who can temper his fire, calm his moods, and when he's getting too hot to handle its to her we turn to calm it all down. So likewise when you come to make your nettle juice add her to the mix, and she'll cool that green fire down, like the maiden and the dragon, she's the one who can control his firey breath.

It comes as no surprise then that the ancient myth makers considered her to be a gentle nymph visiting from the royal court of the sweet Goddess Venus. Now Venus looks after the cooling liquids of the body, and aids the flow of our vital heat from organ to organ, so with her in attendence the hot sting of the Nettle can do you no harm, try it, you'll like it!

I mix her with the nettle and the goosegrass and juice them all up, and find it brings a sparkle to the eyes of the most wilted of my patients, nourishing and balancing the blood, cleansing the winters debris, and cheering the spirit.

Now some people find all this astrological stuff a bit off-putting, it all seems so much like confusing nonsense. But it has a good point, as in earlier times most people didn't read, so there needed to be other ways of remembering and passing on the important stuff.

So lets look at this lovely white dead nettle; we know that Venus rules her, and everyone would be aware that as Venus is the fertility Goddess then in the body Venus will rule the womb and ovaries. So if the womb and ovaries are hot or inflamed and if there is weeping from the vagina, a condition known as "The Whites" in the old language, then this cooling herb would be the one to use. The white flowers would also be a reminder when we see the plant that that is what we can use her for. Now if we know the plant by its characteristics in this way then we will be able to decide when its best to use it. So we can already say that in hot irritating conditions this may be a good choice, and particularly when those conditions are concerning the reproductive system. Knowing this is much more helpful than trying to compile an ever growing a list of conditions and illnesses for each plant, or trying to remember a list of actions for each herb. So each plant begins to have a story for us, and thats a much easier way to remember things.

She can be collected and dried for use later in the year, although she tends to be around in her fresh state for some months from now on. But as a cooling, refreshing addition to our spring drinks, theres none better!

So go out collecting when you can,enjoy the sun on the leaves when it shines, the sweet rain on your skin when it doesn't, and always thank the wind in your hair for keeping the birds in the air,and then join me again soon for another walk on the wild side.

1 comment:

  1. Steve - I would like to make that tonic & will go looking for the white dead nettle. Could you put up a photo of goose grass & then give the recipe for the drink - maybe using the photos of the different ingredients. That would be really helpful. We have lots of spring growth here in Dublin & would like to see it through your herbalist eye. Thanks Mel