My six-year-old daughter and I went out searching for the earliest herbs on a sunny morning last week. There isn't much growing in our area yet and we were hoping to find chickweed. Instead, my daughter found nettles - the hard way.
Young nettles can be potent and these stung her right through her pants when she knelt in the grass. Different people have different levels of allergic reaction to nettle stings. My husband is almost immune to both nettles and mosquitoes. He isn't just tough. His skin doesn't react to the irritants. His whole family is like that, possibly because their ancestors lived in a swamp for hundreds of years. My daughter and I are not so fortunate. Within a few minutes her knee swelled up with painful pustules.
I often just grit my teeth and ignore it when I'm stung by nettles, but I made the snap decision to teach my daughter a valuable lesson about herbs. There are very few herbal medicines that act as quickly and dramatically as nettle anti-allergy medicine. It is handy that they are their own antidote. I used a piece of paper from our field notebook to protect my fingers while I picked a few sprigs of nettle, while I explained that we really didn't mean to disturb them and thanked the plants for their help.
Then I took my crying child home and quickly boiled some water. I poured the still-bubbling liquid over the nettles and let them steep in a cup. This is one of the few instances where you want fresh boiling water with herbs. Many herbal infusions or teas are better made with slightly cooled water. But the boiling water breaks down the chemical compounds in the nettle that cause allergies and leave the antidote behind.
You might not believe me. My daughter didn't. She was a little afraid when I dipped a clean cloth in the nettle tea. Nettles hurt after all. That was her first plant lesson ever at the age of eighteen months.
I waved the cloth in the air to cool it and then pressed it onto her knee. Within a second her eyes widened with surprise. The sting was gone. This works with strong nettle tea, steamed nettle or infused nettle oil and it only takes a second or two. The cooling, soothing action of the herb is so demonstrative that it's easy for a child to observe.
When I began learning about herbs, I held the common assumptions that herbs are natural and gentle medicine, good for prevention and a little remediation of symptoms if you're willing to wait. With the diluted and over-processed herbal products I'd bought I had become used to the notion that herbs are medicinally weak and always take longer to relieve symptoms than pharmaceuticals.
Nettles were one of the first herbs to teach me the shocking truth.
I was enjoying a sunny spring day with a friend. She had two daughters ages five and two. The younger child was adopted. We sat on my veranda sipping iced tea and watching as the kids raided my strawberry patch.
"Oh, I do hope she really isn't allergic to strawberries," my friend said, referring to her youngest child.
I asked her what she meant. As an adoptive parent, I know the anxiety about allergies. Without the genetic continuity within a family, it is more likely that unexpected allergies may crop up. My friend explained that her two-year-old had developed a severe rash after eating strawberry jam and that she had never had fresh strawberries before.
We returned to our conversation but ten minutes later the children came running. Sure enough the two-year-old was covered with the worst skin condition I have ever seen. Her body was covered with bubbles the size of quarters. Some sort of liquid seemed to be inside the bubbles. I had never seen a person's body change so quickly and I was afraid. The child looked like she might have general swelling, like a life-threatening allergic reaction. She was crying and scratching her skin hard enough to draw blood.
And all the while I knew that my friend has a psychiatric condition which can result in anxiety attacks that make it impossible for her to drive. I assumed that we would need to go to the emergency room and I can't drive, because I'm legally blind. Both of our husbands were gone and my friend was the only available driver. I was desperate to keep my friend calm.
I had read someplace that infused nettle oil could be used to treat allergic reactions on the skin and I had just such oil (a little experiment I planned to try out on my own nettle stings) freshly brewed in my refrigerator. I went and got the jar of oil and told my friend to smear it all over the child. I doubted it would help enough to matter, but it would give the mother something to do and it might sooth the child a little.
Then I grabbed my phone and ran into the other room to call a friend with medical experience. I quickly got the information that a strawberry allergy was very unlikely to be life threatening. I relaxed a little and described the child's condition and wrote down a list of heavy-duty anti-allergy medications we would need from the pharmacy. My friend with the medical background sounded discouraged. She said the child and her mother were in for a very bad night. It would usually take about twenty-four hours for the anti-allergy medicines to really take effect and the itching was going to continue to be very bad. I could tell that our fun day in the spring sunshine was over.
After I got off the phone I went back out to see my friend with the little girl. About ten minutes had passed and I thought I must be imagining things. The huge bubbles that had been on the child's skin had been reduced to small white bumps. And while her mother continued to apply the nettle salve the bumps disappeared entirely over the next twenty minutes, leaving nothing but the bloody scratches left by the child's fingernails. Both the mother and I were hugely relieved and amazed.
I'm glad that my first reflex was to help the suffering child, but I do wish I had somehow managed to take a picture of the condition because the change was so dramatic that my friend and I both found it hard to believe that what we had seen was real.
We did go to the pharmacy and she picked up the anti-allergy medicine to be on the safe side. But I also sent her home with a jar of the nettle oil. My friend reported that the rash did come back about twelve hours later and she put more of the nettle oil on it and it receded again.
I have tried nettle oil on other skin conditions and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. I can only conclude that it works for certain types of allergic reactions and when it works it works very well. As soon as there are enough nettles, I'll make some more this spring.
The broader lesson to be learned here about herbs is that herbs are not necessarily slow-acting or less powerful than pharmaceuticals. We have no good controlled trial of nettle oil versus pharmaceutical anti-allergy medicines. I hope there will be one someday. But in this case the nettle oil was at least far better than the standard prediction of how the anti-allergy medicine would work.
It is worth noting that strawberries are plants too and there is another lesson to be learned from this incident. As quickly as herbal medicinals can help, some herbs can cause toxic and allergic reactions just as swiftly. This is why it's important to treat herbal medicinals with respect and caution. In their fresh forms, many herbs are extraordinarily potent. And not everyone has the same reaction to each one, just as not everyone is allergic to strawberries or to uncooked nettles.
For quick anti-allergy medicine, pick several handfuls of nettles using hand protection of some sort. If possible, chop the nettles up. Put them in a cup and pour freshly boiling water over them. Just cover the nettles with water. Stir well and let the infusion steep for ten minutes. You can dip a cloth into the liquid and then wave it in the air to cool it more quickly. You might be able to use dried nettles for the infusion but the effect might be less dramatic.
This is the fastest way to make anti-allergy medicine from nettles but it still takes awhile. During the spring gardening season when our yard is surrounded by nettles and bees, I like to keep a jar of nettle infusion in the refrigerator all the time. Then when I'm stung, all I have to do is pour nettle tea over the affected area. The relief is immediate with nettle stings. It is also good for mosquito bites, bee stings and other bites that cause an allergic reaction.
For an anti-allergy medicine that will sink into the skin, possibly producing a deeper and longer lasting effect, I make infused nettle oil. The process is the same as for any infused oil, except that it has to be done using fresh nettles, which means most people will have to wear gloves. Pick a basket of nettles and chop them into half-inch sized pieces.
Then pack as much of the chopped nettles as you can into a clean, sterilized jar. (You can sterilize jars in a dishwasher or by boiling them in a large pot of water for a few minutes. Don't forget to sterilize the lids as well.)
Finally, pour olive oil (or whichever oil is the least likely to cause an allergic reaction in your family) into the jar. Use a thin stick (chopsticks are good) too stab down into the jar to release air bubbles and get as much oil into the jar as possible. The oil should just cover the nettles. (Avoid using a metal knife to work out air bubbles in nettles as the compounds in nettles may react with metal and weaken their medicinal potency. This is one case in which I'd use plastic before metal.)
Put a loose lid on the jar and set it in a window where it gets as much full sunlight as possible. Check the jar the next day and add oil. It will tend to settle and all the leaves must be covered by oil to avoid mold. Check every day until the leaves stay covered. Leave the infusion in the sun for at least two weeks. Then strain the nettle leaves out. (Use cheese cloth and wring them out to get the last of the oil.) Store infused nettle oil in the refrigerator. I will post later on how to make a salve out of infused oils. This can be done with nettle oil as well.
My children love risotto, which is essentially rice fried on butter and then cooked with vegetables and sprinkled with Parmesan cheese. Adding nettles to your food in the early spring is a great way to get some greens before your garden has a chance to produce any. Beyond that nettle tea and nettles in food help the body rid its self of toxins and heavy metals.
To make simple nettle risotto, heat a few tablespoons of butter in the bottom of a pan, add a chopped onion, a few cloves of chopped garlic, a chopped red pepper and a little frozen corn or peas. Fry very slowly for 15 minutes without letting it burn. When the vegetables have softened, add two cups of rice and turn up the heat. The rice will begin to lightly fry, so keep stirring it. After a minute it will look slightly translucent. At this point you can add a dash of wine if you want. Keep stirring for another minute. Add 4 cups of hot water. Add a teaspoon of salt and some black pepper.
Turn down the heat and let the rice cook. Taste the rice after about 15 minutes and add more hot water if necessary. In a separate pan boil two cups of chopped nettles for five minutes. Pour off the water into a jar and save it for anti-allergy wash in the refrigerator. When the rice is done, mix the chopped nettles into your risotto. Add some butter and Parmesan.
Some herbalists use nettles as part of a seasonal cleanse meant to clear out toxins and heavy metals after the winter months. I recommend doing this only with the supervision of a professional herbalist or doctor because I have seen nettle cleanses appear to cause anemia. It is possible that nettles tend to help remove iron from the body, just as they remove other heavy metals. Whether or not that is the problem, I suggest eating nettles only once or twice a week unless you are doing a monitored cleanse.
Please note that this post doesn't constitute medical advice from a doctor. You should consult a doctor with health problems, such as allergies, in order to make informed decisions.