Friday, January 4, 2013

The medicinal nettle

Large-leaved stinging nettle (Urtica dubia)

Nettles (ħurrieq) would seem an unlikely candidate for inclusion in the list of useful plants but some species of this group of flowering plants are well known for their medicinal properties and some are widely used as salads. 

The best known species is the stinging nettle which is found throughout central and northern Europe as well as in the Mediterranean region. This species is not found in Malta but three other species which apparently have similar properties are found in the Maltese countryside.

The small nettle (ħurrieq zgħira), the Roman nettle (ħurrieqa taz-zibeġ), and the large leaved nettle (ħurrieqa komuni) are common weeds found mostly in nitrogen rich soil especially in fields, abandoned land and along roads and paths.

Nettles are best known for the painful sting one feels when touching their leaves. The plants were used in ancient times for flogging known as urtication.  This brought about redness of the skin which was believed to be a cure for rheumatism.

Extracts from the plants are used to treat arthritis, anemia, hay fever, kidney problems and pain. A particular compound found in nettles is also believed to induce lactation and clinical trials indicate that the extract of some species is a diuretic in patients suffering of congestive heart failure.

Nettle is used to treat dandruff and to make hair more shiny. In some countries farmers add nettles to cows’ food to give them a more glossy and healthy appearance. It is believed that nettles can ease eczema.
Moreover fresh nettles are used in folk remedies to stop bleeding thanks to the large quantity of vitamin K they contain although there is none in dried plants which are thus used to thin blood.

Nettles contain substances that are believed to prevent or cure many other conditions. Studies and clinical trials are still going on to determine these properties which include prevention of certain types of cancer.
Nettles are also widely used as food being rich in vitamins A,C D, iron, potassium, manganese and calcium and are a good source of nutient for people who do not eat enoough meat or fruit. Its flavour is similar to that of spinach and its leaves and flowers are used to make a herbal tea. A soup made from the young shoots is considered a delicacy in Scandinavia. It can also be used in polent and pesto.

To remove the sting the leaves are soaked in water.

In Medieval times the nettle was used to make dye for clothes and even during the Second World War it was used to camouflage soldiers’ uniforms.

This article was published in The Times on 11.02.09

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