Weed Wanderings Herbal eZine with Susun Weed
March 2004
Volume 4 Number 3

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What's Inside Weed Wanderings this Month...


Nettles and Seaweed
Wise Woman Wisdom ...
Donnernessel und Seetang
(Nettles and Seaweed)
by A.J. Ahlberg-Venezia
Nettles and Seaweed

“In some parts of the world you can sleep between nettle sheets, eat off a nettle tablecloth, dine in nettle-enriched steaks and eggs ordered from a nettle-paper menu, in an emergency fish with a nettle line, and in the springtime especially revel with delectable nettle dishes washed down with nettle beer. In fact, this is only a portion of this wild edible’s capabilities”. (Angier, p. 152)

There are over 550 species of the Urticaceae family; three of the 45 genera have stinging hairs. Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica) is, of course, my beloved. She got my attention as I ran barelegged through the woods as a little girl. Certain that I had brushed against barbed wire caught in the mass of weeds, I was puzzled that there was no cut on my shin. Tracing my steps backward, I found her by touch--aggressive and energetic with her heavy leaves. An unusual dialogue ensued; like two scorpions in a bowl we regarded each other cautiously. I circled her, stung with each touch. This episode was forgotten until I began studying herbal healing in the Wise Woman tradition, and stinging nettle became my green ally.

There is a belief that the herb you need most is either all around you or tries to make her presence known. Coincidentally, U. dioica, an alterative, is a primary treatment for asthmatic allergies and "nervous" eczema, which afflicted me as a child. She is known for reducing sensitivity to food allergies by her binding action on immunoglobin G. She was grabbing my attention even then. Always stepping on dandelions? Try making friends and dandelion wine with her!

Stinging nettles nourish and support the entire body, particularly the endocrine, immune, urinary, respiratory, and circulatory systems. Nettle root is a kidney ally and lymphatic/immune strengthener. Germans have been employing Nettle root as a treatment in prostate cancer.

The richest soup I've ever had (at the Wise Woman Center) was the simplest: it consisted of young Nettle tops brought to the boil, covered, and let sit overnight before reheating. Nettle beer, my future project, was taken for gout and rheumatic pain. Swedish peasants traditionally ate Hemp nettle (Galeopsis tetrahit) and both Purple (Lamium purpureum) and White (Lamium album) dead-nettle as potherbs (not of the same botanical family as stinging nettle).

Pfeiffer lists stinging nettle as one of the dynamic plants "which influence their surroundings in a specific way so that other plants change their properties or that a soil changes its character". In experimental conditions, nettle notably increased oil composition of peppermint plants and the richness of humus after their introduction into existing rows of the aromatic plants.

The massive mineral and botanical collection of Linnaeus (which included 19,000 sheets of pressed plants) contained a 200-year old mounted nettle plant. During the process of photographing this collection, the photographer was stung by this nettle, receiving a "definite blister apparently similar to one produced by a fresh specimen". Some Indian species of Urtica are so virulent that the effects are reportedly felt up to an entire year.

She is spoken of as both an herb of the Norns--for her history in spinning into nettle cloth--and because the word nettle is related to the Latin nere, German na-hen, or Sanskrit nah, to bind. Nettles supplied the material for spinning until the introduction of Flax into the North. Wild nettles were used for weaving in Europe at least since the Bronze Age--cremated bones wrapped in nettle cloth have been discovered in a Danish burial site from that period. U. dioica is generally resistant to cultivation, remaining content in moist soils. Attempts to cultivate her on a wide scale were largely unsuccessful, so her use was eclipsed by the incursion of Flax (Linum usitatissimum) and Hemp (Cannabis sativa) into the North. Not until the hardships of World War I, when cultivated fabric was scarce, was nettle cloth (Nesseltuch) from wild plants again used so extensively.

It is estimated that Germans harvested over two thousand tons of wild nettles to weave fabric for their soldiers during the World Wars. Stronger than flax, fiber from white dead-nettle was also spun into fishing nets by North American Indians, through a process of decay rather than retting. The Algonquin tale is that women were taught to make fishnets by twisting Nettle fibers on their thighs after Sirakitehac watched the spider spin, supporting my belief that mythological herb lore often preserves a sound empirical basis. Among the Norse, Loki is credited with spinning the first fishnet, which seems appropriate given some of his other traditionally feminine activities (such as shapeshifting into a mare and giving birth to Sleipnir, Odhinn’s 8-legged steed).

Nettles have a long history as a treatment for rheumaticism and muscle/nerve pain like sciatica and lumbago. U. pilulifera--the smaller and more venomous Roman nettle--was cultivated and used by the Romans. The Romans are credited with bringing seeds of this plant with them into Britain; by flogging themselves with the plants, they reportedly kept warm in the colder northern climate. Like the Romany, the Romans employed nettles in the following manner: bunches of fresh nettles were tied together, and the afflicted area of the body was thrashed repeatedly to create heat in the limbs and to stimulate blood circulation.

Urtication is the term used to describe this process; the name Urtica comes from uro, I burn. U. dioica is also known as an herb of Thorr (Donnernessel), which puzzles some students of Norse mythology. In Gylfaginning 43, Thorr slays his chariot-pulling goats, Tanngrísnir and Tanngnóstr (Tooth-barer and Tooth-grinder; though these names were probably Sturlusson’s literary invention), and eats them.

After arranging the bones on the goatskins before the cooking fire, Thorr returns the animals to life by raising his hammer, Mjollnir, over the bones and blessing them. I perceive this revivifying action as a metaphor for urtication and suggest that this is why nettle is sacred to the Thunder God. Indeed, the Norse believed that when Thorr flung Mjollnir across the sky, lightning flashed. Certainly a nettle thrashing is a “fiery” experience! Further, in Holland, young boys would go out early in the morning to gather bunches of nettles to tie to the doors of the village houses. Grimm notes that this was done on the "Zaterdag before Pentecost", suggesting that it was a Heathen fertility custom which survived the conversion—perhaps an ancient remnant of flogging (birch branches were used likewise in the saunas to bring blood to the surface).

It should also be noted that Thorr was a god of fertility of both Earth and womb. Bunches of fresh Nettles were also laid across vats of beer to prevent thunder from turning and spoiling the beer. Young nettles were boiled and eaten with meat on Grün-donnerstag (Maundy Thursday). Depending on the author in secondary sources, stinging nettle was called Wergulu or Stithe in the Nine Herbs Charm, which was a charm used by Odhinn for protection against the "flying venom"(one of four causes of disease in Teutonic etiology). The Anglo-Saxons used purple dead-nettle in butter based eyesalves and "holy salves" against disease; red nettle was used in salves against rash or "elf-shot", another cause of disease within this etiology (note that many of these texts were written prior to the establishment of the binomial nomenclature developed by Linnaeus; so identification of herbs based on folknames is imprecise at best).

Modern herbalists still use nettles "to bring dormant energies into action" (Weed). Indeed, some midwives consider Nettles a primary fertility promoter (second only to Trifolium pratense--red clover or Rotkeet). She is also the richest plant source of folic acid, which is vital for fetal health. One cup of nettle infusion (prepared as indicated in Healing Wise) provides 500 milligrams of calcium (Weed), iron and vitamin K to help prevent hemorrhage. The protein, vitamins and minerals in nettles enriches breast milk, giving nursing mothers "a green tit" (Parvati Baker). If you are a woman engaged in the dance of fertility with Thorr, you would do well to make friends with stinging nettle.

Speaking of fertility warrants a mention of the green gifts of the fertile sea. All sea vegetables are vitamin and mineral rich and nourish the lymphatic, nervous and endocrine systems. Seaweeds have a special affinity for women in the treatment of infertility and fibroids, cysts, and lumps in the breasts and womb. Brown seaweeds, especially Kelp (Alaria esculenta) are particularly effective against radiation, heavy metals, and x-rays.

Breast tissue is particularly vulnerable to the radiation in mammograms; a suggested dose to help your body's defenses is at least a half ounce of dried Kelp a day for at least a week following your mammogram. Breast cancer is rare in Japan, and this is believed to reflect the traditional inclusion of seaweed in the diet--in soups and stews, for example. Try adding small bits of seaweed to your tuna salad.

The red seaweed Dulse (Palmeria palmata, for the hand-shaped fronds) is protein-rich at 25%; if you eat limited protein, consider adding her to your diet. In Iceland, dulse (folk name Saccha) was included in soups, eaten dried, baked into bread, or cooked into relish. Grapestone (Girgartina papilatta) is quite high in Vitamin C; Icelanders cooked both grapestone and kelp with water or milk and flour into a thick pudding, to be eaten with cream. Iron-rich Fingered Tangle (Laminara digitata) is eaten fresh in Iceland. Laverbread made from purple laver (Porphyra umbilicalis) is popular throughout the British Isles; kelp is eaten fresh in the Orkney Islands, Scotland and Greenland.

Try frying up pieces of kelp in a skillet--they're better than potato chips. Kelp has a strong taste to some, so you may wish to try dulse first and gradually increase your consumption. Irish moss (Chondrus crispus) has a long history as an additive to vats of beer during brewing; it's discarded at the end. The action of the seaweed--bonding with impurities in the beer--is consistent with Kelp's action of chelating toxins and passing them out of the body. Today, Irish moss, high in vitamin C, is most often an ingredient in prepared foods but can be drunk as a tea to treat bronchitis. During World War I, soldiers who had been gassed in combat were given Irish moss infusion as a throat and lung treatment.

If you are undergoing radiation treatment, consider making seaweed a regular part of your diet. "Workers at Swedish nuclear power plants eat seaweed to reduce and eliminate their absorption of strontium 90, a radioactive element. Research at McGill University finds that alginic acid, one of the main components of seaweed, binds with radioactive strontium". Strontium 90 (which ultimately is released into the atmosphere) becomes concentrated in calcium and eventually enters the bone marrow and breast milk. But the alginic acid in seaweed seems to bind with radioactive isotopes and heavy metals to help flush them from the body. Chemotherapy patients and bulimics can also find an ally here; seaweed's mucilaginous nature soothes digestive tracts irritated from repeated vomiting. Internal bleeding, such as that caused by duodenal ulcers, is also reduced by regular ingestion of seaweed. Healing Wise devotes an entire chapter to seaweed; I highly recommend this book for your herbal library if you don’t yet own a copy.

Seaweeds also help stabilize weight by balancing the thyroid--stabilizing an overactive thyroid as well as nudging a sluggish one--with their iodine content. Goiter (linked to a hypoactive thyroid) is rare in Iceland where seaweeds are a regular part of the diet. An old wives remedy for weight loss is 1 - 2 cups of Bladderwrack (Fucus vesiculosis ) tea daily for no more than three months. A separate species of Bladderwrack, Fucus serratus, is much used in Norway as cattle feed; hence the folk name of "cow-weed". Linnaeus noted that in Gotland it was called Swine-tang and fed to hogs.

Swedes also covered their cottages with this plant. The sea salt in seaweeds is free from the sodium chloride (implicated in cardiovascular trouble) and free-flowing agents added to table salt. This may be why seaweeds seem to lower blood pressure despite their salt content. White, free flowing "sea salt" indicates adulteration and is best avoided--pure sea salt has a pink tint and cakes up (Weed). Do not rinse seaweed in fresh water--the cell membranes will rupture, and the seaweed will develop a fishy smell (like seaweed pills). Dried seaweed is ready to eat and smells and tastes just like the sea.

Ideally, seaweeds are harvested directly off the rocky coast or ocean bed, alive and attached by a holdfast. However, you may purchase buy dried seaweed from a natural foods store (Asian markets in the U.S. often sell fresh seaweeds). The seaweed sold where I live (Eastern U.S. coast) comes from Maine; most seaweed sold in the U.S. is harvested off the coast of Southern California. The only poisonous seaweed is Lyngbya, appropriately called "mermaid's hair"--a bright green, tangled mass of skinny strands.

You've probably seen clumps of this on shore—maybe right next to the cold, clammy "dead man's fingers" (Scytosiphon Lomentarius). Perhaps the dead man’s fingers are all that is left of that victim of die Lorelei, man-eating siren of Teutonic mythology. If you do wild harvest, please bring a guide skilled in seaweed identification, as a few non-poisonous seaweeds can still cause gastrointestinal distress. You'll also need to work with the outgoing tide; two hours before low tide is recommended to begin your harvest. My local class went on a sea weed expedition with a local expert and we all got to take some home--my bedroom smelled just like the ocean for weeks as the fronds dripped and dried. Mmmmmm.....Summer on the coast!

Mendocino Seaweed Company

Wise Woman Center teacher photo of A.J. Ahlberg-VeneziaBook Hoard:
Abbot, I. & Dawson, E.(1978). How to Know the Seaweeds. Dubuque: Brown Company Publishers. Instructions for seaweed harvesting.
Angier, B. (1974). Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants. Harrisburg: Stackpole Books.
Balch. J. & Balch, P. (1997). Prescription for Nutritional Healing. New York: Avery Publishing Group.
Brightman, F. & Nicholson, B.(1966). The Oxford Book of Flowerless Plants. London: Oxford University Press.
Blunt, W. (1971). The Complete Naturalist: A Life of Linnaeus. New York: Viking Press.
Buchanan, R. (1987). A Weaver's Garden. Loveland: Interweave Press.
de Bairacli Levy, J. (1997). Common Herbs for Natural Health. New York: Ash Tree Publishing.
Elpel, T. (1996). Botany in a Day, 4th Ed. Pony: Hops Press.
Foster, S. & Duke, J. (1990). Peterson Field Guide to Eastern/Central Medicinal Plants. Audubon Society.
Grattan, J. & Singer, C.(1952). Anglo-Saxon Magic and Medicine. London: Oxford University Press.
Grieve, M. (1971). A Modern Herbal (2 vols). New York: Dover Publications.
Grimm, J. (1883). Teutonic Mythology (4 vols). New York: Dover Publications Inc.
Hoffmann, D. (1992). New Holistic Herbal. Rockport: Element Publishing.
Kreig, M. (1965). Green Medicine. Chicago: McNally & Company.
LeStrange, R. (1977). A History of Herbal Plants. New York: Arco Publishing.
Madlener, J. (1977). The Sea Vegetable Book. New York: Crown Publishers.
Petry, L. (1968). A Beachcomber's Botany. Chatham: Chatham Conservation Foundation, Inc.
Pfeiffer, E. (1970). Weeds and What They Tell. Kimberton: Bio-Dynamic Farming and Gardening Association, Inc.
Rohde, E. (1922). The Old English Herbals. New York: Dover Publications.
Scott, A. (1979). The Saxon Age. London: Croom Helm.
Simek, R. (1993). Dictionary of Northern Mythology (translated by Angela Hall). London: Boydell & Brewer Ltd.
Sturluson, S. (1987). Edda. London: Everyman.
Turville-Petre (1964). Myth and Religion of the North. Westport: Greenwood Press.
Weed, S. (1996). Breast Cancer? Breast Health! New York: Ash Tree Publishing
Weed, S. (1989). Healing Wise. New York: Ash Tree Publishing.
Weed, S. (1989). Wise Woman Herbal for the Childbearing Year. New York: Ash Tree Publishing.
Wheelwright, E. (1974). Medicinal Plants and Their History. New York: Dover Publications, Inc.
Wood, R. (1999). New Whole Foods Encyclopedia. New York: Penguin Books.

Come join Amy Ahlberg-Venezia at the
Wise Woman Center in Woodstock , NY

April 10th, 2004 Bleeding Goddess workshop
April 11th, 2004 Norse Goddess Runes workshop

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