Breverton's Complete Herbal

NETTLE

URTICA DIOICA subsp. DIOICA

Family Urticaceae, Nettle

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OTHER NAMES: Stinging nettle, European stinging nettle, common nettle, burn nettle, burn weed, burn hazel.

DESCRIPTION: It grows to 6 feet (1.8 m) tall and its soft green leaves are strongly serrated and covered with fine “stinging” hairs. Tiny hairs break off when it is touched, and release acid into the skin. The irritation can be relieved by applying dock leaf, rosemary, mint, sage or the juice of the nettle itself.

PROPERTIES AND USES: “The roots or leaves boiled, or the juice of either of them, or both made into an electuary with honey and sugar, is a safe and sure medicine to open the pipes and passages of the lungs, which is the cause of wheezing and shortness of breath, and helps to expectorate tough phlegm…The decoction of the leaves in wine, being drank, is singularly good to provoke women’s courses, and settle the suffocation, strangling of the mother, and all other diseases thereof; it is also applied outwardly with a little myrrh. The same also, or the seed provokes urine, and expels the gravel and stone in the reins or bladder, often proved to be effectual in many that have taken it. The same kills the worms in children, eases pains in the sides, and dissolves the windiness in the spleen, as also in the body, although others think it only powerful to provoke venery. The juice of the leaves taken two or three days together, stays bleeding at the mouth. The seed being drank, is a remedy against the stinging of venomous creatures, the biting of mad dogs, the poisonous qualities of hemlock, henbane, nightshade, mandrake, or other such like herbs that stupefy or dull the senses; as also the lethargy, especially to use it outwardly, to rub the forehead or temples in the lethargy, and the places stung or bitten with beasts, with a little salt…The juice of the leaves, or the decoction of them, or of the root, is singularly good to wash either old, rotten, or stinking sores or fistulous, and gangrenes, and such as fretting, eating, or corroding scabs, manginess, and itch, in any part of the body, as also green wounds, by washing them therewith, or applying the green herb bruised thereunto, yea, although the flesh were separated from the bones; the same applied to our wearied members, refresh them, or to place those that have been out of joint, being first set up again, strengthens, dries, and comforts them, as also those places troubled with aches and gouts, and the defluxion of humours upon the joints or sinews; it eases the pains, and dries or dissolves the defluxions.” Culpeper’s remedy for joint aches has a contemporary resonance in that the plant is used for rheumatism today. Nettles are high in boron, and the Rheumatoid Disease Foundation recommends that people should take 3 milligrams of boron every day. Stinging nettles contain antihistamines and anti-inflammatories (including quercetin), which open up constricted bronchial and nasal passages, helping to ease hay fever, and nose and sinus problems. Extracts of nettle roots are diuretics that encourage excretion of uric acid, but simultaneously discourage nighttime visits to the bathroom urges, making it useful for gout, bed-wetting, and benign prostate enlargement. Nettles were used as a tonic by Native North American women who used it throughout pregnancy, and as a remedy to stop hemorrhaging during childbirth. It tastes a little like spinach and makes herbal teas and a wonderful soup. Strongly brewed nettle tea and the powdered plant itself are noted for having power to stop hemorrhaging, internal bleeding and excessive flow from wounds and cuts. Leftover nettle tea also makes nutritious houseplant water and leaves or dregs can be sprinkled on potted plant soil to boost mineral content. Finely crushed, dried nettles can be used in place of dried parsley for adding color to soups, stews and other dishes. Flies dislike nettles and a bunch hung by the kitchen door may keep them out.

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HISTORY: Nettle stings prevented sorcery, and the presence of plants prevented milk from being soured by witches. Their presence often denotes a former human or animal habitation, probably because of the elevated levels of phosphate and nitrogen in the soil. One remedy for hay fever is to strip off and roll in a bed of stinging nettles, or preferably to take a concoction of stinging nettle root. If a horse cuts its leg and is ridden through a large patch of nettles, the bleeding seems to stop, which may be the origin of the belief of nettles helping with heavy menstrual periods.

Eating Nettles

The Stinging Nettle Eating Championship draws thousands of people to Dorset’s Bottle Inn at Marshwood near Bridport every June, where competitors attempt to eat as much of the raw plant as possible. They are given 20-inch (50-cm) stalks of the plant, from which they must strip the leaves and eat them. Whoever strips and eats the most leaves in an hour is the winner. An accumulated stem length of 76 feet (23.2 m) is the world record so far. The championship has separate men’s and women’s sections and attracts competitors from as far afield as Canada and Australia.

NUTMEG TREE and MACE

MYRISTICA FRAGRANS

Family Myristicaceae, Nutmeg

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OTHER NAMES: Nutmeg, mace, nux moschata.

DESCRIPTION: A tropical evergreen which grows to a height of around 45 feet (14 m), producing up to 2000 nuts per year. The stone of the fruit is enclosed in a husk, and the seed covering when dried is known as mace. This fibrous, branched aril wraps itself around the nutmeg seed. The blossoms are wonderfully fragrant, and its name comes from nux (nut) and muscat (musky).

PROPERTIES AND USES: The pit, or stone, contains the brown nutmeg kernel. Nutmeg and mace have been used to treat many illnesses ranging from those affecting the nervous system to ailments of the digestive system. Nutmeg has been used as the active ingredient in commercial cough and congestion preparations such as Vicks Cough Syrup and in herbal pain-relieving ointments. Culpeper recommended both for coughs and to “dry up distillations of rheum falling upon the lungs.” Culinary uses vary around the world. In the USA it is used in hot dogs, in sausages and processed luncheon meats. The Dutch and Scandinavians use it with vegetables, including mashed potatoes and spinach, and even with pineapple. In France, it is added to béchamel sauce. Nutmeg and mace are widely used in drinks, cosmetics and in flavorings in dental pastes.

HISTORY: Pliny the Elder writes of a tree bearing nuts with two flavors. In the sixth century, nutmegs were brought by Arab traders to Constantinople. In the 12th century, Crusaders found a whole new world of taste in the Holy Land, and nutmeg became the most expensive spice in the world. At one time, the trees were only grown on the island of Banda in the Moluccas, and the Dutch massacred and enslaved all its inhabitants to ensure a monopoly in the product and to keep prices high. In 1760, the price of nutmeg in London was 85 to 90 shillings per pound, a price kept artificially high by the Dutch deliberately burning full warehouses of nutmegs in Amsterdam. The Dutch held control of the “Spice Islands” until the Second World War. Frenchman Pierre Poivre (“Peter Pepper”) transported nutmeg seedlings to Mauritius where they flourished, which helped to break the Dutch monopoly of the spice. The British East India Company spread the nutmeg tree across the empire, most notably to Grenada in the Caribbean, where it is the national emblem on the country’s red, yellow and green flag. At the height of its value in Europe, nutmeg was carried around by the upper classes as a demonstration of wealth. Diners would flourish tiny graters and grate their own nutmeg in restaurants and at each other’s houses. Connecticut is sometimes referred to as the “Nutmeg State,” with G.E. Shankle in 1941 writing that it “…is applied to Connecticut because its early inhabitants had the reputation of being so ingenious and shrewd that they were able to make and sell wooden nutmegs…Some claim that wooden nutmegs were actually sold, but they do not give either the time or the place.”

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How the English Obtained Manhattan

In Elizabethan times it was believed that nutmeg could ward off the plague (35,000 died in England in 1603), and it was also used in perfumes and oils. As the world’s only source of nutmeg and mace, the Banda islands had attracted traders from China, Asia and the Middle East for over 3000 years, ever since the Persians first traded cloves from Moluccas. The Roman empire’s spices also came from these islands. By the 1600s, the spices were more widely available due to the new sea routes used by Portuguese traders. The Dutch, British and Portuguese began to battle to control the islands. During the ‘Spice Wars’ of the Middle Ages, the Dutch took control of nutmeg importation from the Portuguese, who had discovered nutmeg in the Moluccas of Indonesia a century previously. The profit on a ship successfully carrying nutmeg to Europe was around 3200 per cent, such was the popularity and scarcity of the spice. Run is one of the smallest of the Banda Islands, only about 2 miles (3 km) long and less than 0.6 miles (1 km) wide, but of immense value because of its nutmeg trees. The English had occupied Run Island, but were driven out by the Dutch. Initially the Dutch had traded amicably with the Bandanese, but 6000 islanders were then killed in a spice war. Banda was so rich that merchants joked that when they shook a nutmeg tree, golden guilders would fall down. After the war, the Banda Islands were run as a series of plantation estates, with the Dutch mounting annual expeditions in local war-vessels to eliminate nutmeg trees planted elsewhere. Desperate to keep a monopoly on the nutmeg, the Dutch only allowed nutmeg trees to grow on islands such as Run, which they could easily guard with their forces. In addition, they limed each kernel that left the islands to ensure that it was its sterile, and thus to prevent anyone from growing their own trees. The death penalty was pronounced on anyone caught smuggling the seeds. Eventually the English gave up their claim to the Spice Islands in return for Manhattan. They had already smuggled nutmeg seeds to Grenada and other possessions, breaking the Dutch monopoly on the spices.” (From T.D. Breverton, The Book of the Sea—Breverton’s Nautical Curiosities, 2010.)