By SIR STEPHEN TALLENTS
“ "OUT why do nettles grow?" A little town girl on her first D visit to the country, being stung by a nettle, put that question
to her parents. I sympathised with her when I heard of it. I had
asked myself much the same question when, one March morning fifteen years ago, I had looked ignorantly out of the window of my new house and first marked with enemy eyes the nettles in the field opposite springing up like an army of invasion. But now I know the answer to the child's question.
Not that I expect anyone to love the stinging nettle. No poet that I know of has praised it in his verse, though Victor Hugo in Les Miserables put into the mouth of one of his characters an admirable prose account of its qualities, and Housman portrayed it with a wry sympathy—" the numberless, the lonely, the thronger of the land." But at least among its own kindred the common nettle of our fields has more than held its own. Following always, it is said, the habitations of men, it is found throughout the temperate regions of Europe and Asia. It grows in Australia. It grows in New Zealand, though there, unlike some of the animals and plants familiar to us at home, it has neither increased in stature nor flourished much. It grows in Japan and in the Andes. It is at any rate more lovable than some of its 500 relations. The sting of a certain Java nettle, for example, may last for a year and is reputed even to cause death. Our nettle is more compassionate. Its own juice is an antidote for its sting. But it is something more than compassionate. The nettle can be finely and strongly spun and woven. The nettle is a healer and physician. The nettle is excellent food for man, beast and fowl. There is surely no other plant so resourceful. I find a tragic parable in the fate of this creature, which can do so much so well, and yet, being unlovely and bearing the cross of its sting, can never enjoy the affection of those who profit by its virtues. I cannot hope to win hearts for the nettle ; but I should like others to share the respect— the distant admiration even—which this gifted and versatile plant has won from me..
Most people know Hans Andersen's story, The Wild Swans, and remember how the Princess Elsie is bidden by the fairy Morgana, for the saving of her eleven brothers, to gather nettles and crush them with her bare feet and, keeping unbroken silence meanwhile, to weave from their fibres a shirt for each brother ; how, as a queen sentenced to be burned as a witch, she finishes her eleventh shirt in the cart which is. carrying her to the • bonfire. Not so many people know how little Hans Andersen drew upon his fancy for the nettle element in his story. Nettle fibre was commonly spun by the Scandinavian peoples and used for cloth and cordage before the introduction of flax and hemp from the south. (I wonder if the "nettles," by which sailors sling their hammocks, owe their name to this ancient industry.) Nor was this practice confined to Scandinavia. Mrs. Grieve, in A Modern Herbal, quotes the 'poet Campbell, complaining of the little heed paid to the nettle in England: "In Scotland I have eaten nettles, I have slept in nettle sheets and I have dined off a nettle tablecloth. . . . The stalks of the old nettle are as good flax for making cloth. I have heard my mother say that she thought nettle cloth more durable than any other species of linen." During the last war the Germans demonstrated afresh that a range f woven goods, from stockings to tarpaulins, could be produced tom the bast fibre which makes up from 8 to to per cent, of the ettle stalk ; and in this war we have read of 5,000 railway truck- oads of nettles to come from Hungary for textile uses in Germany. ecent scientific tests in Britain have shown that the breaking trength of nettle fibre ranks only after that of flax, and is above hat of hemp, rantie or New Zealand flax. (Some reels of spun ode fibre may be seen in a museum at Kew Gardens.) The
fibre has been used, too, in France for the making of paper, and Scottish paper-makers have lately experimented with it successfully. The healing and health-giving virtues of the nettle have long been recognised. There is an old English rhyme: If they would drink nettles in March, And eat mugwort in May, So many fine maidens Wouldn't go to the clay.
Earlier still, according to Camden, Roman soldiers brought with them to Britain nettle seed, though not of ow common nettle, and "sowed it there for their use to rub and chafe their limbs, when through extreme cold they should be stiff or benumbed," as they expected to be in England. Flogging with nettles was an old English remedy for rheumatic gout, and nettles in various forms, Mrs. Grieve tells us, used to be recommended for such various afflictions as consumption, chicken-pox, asthma, burns, nose- bleeding, baldness and the bites of mad dogs. Not all the nettle's healing virtues have gone out of fashion. The Medical Supplies Directorate of the Ministry of Supply included it last summer in a short list of ten plants which should be gathered in preference to all others. The Ministry urged its collection, explaining that it was needed for "a special wartime use."
This catalogue does not end the story of the nettle's accomplish- ments. A friend tells me that the ripening of stored apples, tomatoes and other fruits is promoted by layers of nettles placed immediately above and below them. I read that a bunch of fresh nettles, hung in the larder, will keep it clear of flies. (I heard of these claims only this winter and have not yet tried them out.) A good green dye, used in Russia for the dyeing of wool, comes from nettle leaves. According to Victor Hugo, a beautiful yellow dye can be made from its roots—a dye with which, we are told elsewhere, Russian peasants stained their eggs on Maundy Thursday. The Egyptians are said to have expressed a burning oil from its seeds. Its ash is well recommended for the modern compost heap. Before the war we used to import dried nettles from the Continent, and some of them were employed for the colouring of green soaps and other toilet preparations.
But this month, while the year's great nettle crop is still young and tender, and so few other green vegetables are available, nettles are best thought of as food. Most people have heard that they are edible ; but, whether through the reluctance of cooks or the jealousy of greengrocers, few seem nowadays to put their know- ledge into action. The animals are wiser. I have often watched horses and cows eating wilted nettles of my mowing. I am told that they are relished by pigs and provide an excellent food for poultry. In old days men, too, ate nettles freely. Herrick, describ- ing for his brother the requirements of country life, asked if he would "forsake that larded fare . . . to taste boyl'd nettles " ; and the young Pepys notes in his February diary for 1661 that, in the house of a lady who had made ready for visitors, "we did eat some nettle porrige . . . which was very good." I read of nettle haggis, nettle beer, even of nettle bubble and squeak. In this house we are content with nettles treated and cooked like spinach and served as a vegetable, and with nettle soup. With us this soup ranks just behind sorrel soup, which is classed in May as of "dinner-party quality." But no March dinner-party need despise the soup of the nettle. I am no cook ; but here, in hope of converts, is the recipe that comes from our kitchen: "Use the tops of young nettles only and wash them through .several waters. Drop them in boiling water to which a little salt has been added, and cook them until very tender. Then put them through a hair sieve. Put some stock in a saucepan ; add an onion and a tablespoon of flour, and let it thicken. Then add the nettles and taste with salt, pepper and sugar. Before serving, add milk as desired ; but do not let the soup boil once the milk has been added."