Welsh, Danadlen. - French, Ortie. - German, Brennessel. - Dutch, Brandenetel. - Italian, Ortica. - Spanish and Portuguese, Ortiga. - Polish, Pokrzywa.
The least ornamental objects are certainly not always the most useless, nor the least interesting; an observation which especially applies to the nettle. Growing in waste and neglected places, boasting no beauty to attract the eye, no pleasant fragrance to delight the sense, shunned and dreaded on account of its painful sting: it is yet, when more closely considered, not only a plant of the greatest utility, but one which most amply repays microscopic examination by the surpassing beauty of its structure, while it acquires additional interest from the circumstance of its belonging to one of the noblest and most highly prized families of the vegetable kingdom.
It is of that family which, under the general name of Urticeae, contains the precious bread-fruit (Arto-carpus), the mulberry - the hop - the hemp - the fig tribe, with its many caoutchouc-producing members - the fustic of the dyer - the far-famed poison-tree, or upas, of Java - the stately banyan, with its thou-sand-rooting branchlets; and innumerable other in-dividual species, each celebrated for some powerful, and most frequently some valuable, product or pecu-liarity.
We must, however, relinquish the contemplation of these glorious vegetable wonders, to consider a few of the practical uses to which the more humble plant, which is their representative in the British Isles, has been applied.
From an early period it has been largely employed in rustic medicine; having been administered in scurvy, gout, jaundice, nephritis, and various other complaints; especially in such as were attended by haemorrhage. In fact, a modern authority, Dr. Thornton, found the practice of placing a portion of lint steeped in nettle-juice, in the nostril, as prescribed by Gerarde, to be effectual where all his other remedies had failed.* This physician also states that thirteen or fourteen nettle-seeds ground to powder, and taken daily, will, without in any way deranging the general health, effect a cure in that most distressing disease, the goitre. The burning irritation produced by the nettle-sting, has been found useful in paralysis, and other cases of local torpor; while "nettle-tea" forms, at the present day, one of the most esteemed of those cooling spring medicines which our peasantry hold in such high repute. At the same season of the year, the young shoots, when boiled, are eaten with meat in some parts of this country, and, I believe, more generally on the Continent; they are wholesome and anti-scorbutic, and are said to resemble asparagus in flavour, though I will not pretend that I could ever discover the similarity.
It will be remem-bered that during the last famine in Ireland, hun-dreds of the poorer people were for days - nay, perhaps for weeks - without any other sustenance. Loudon speaks of the nettle as a most delicate pot-herb, even when unforced, and recommends it as one of the best and most rapid plants for early forcing with which he is acquainted. Who does not remem-ber the exclamation of Andrew Fairservice, in "Rob Roy:" "Nae doubt I suld understand my ain trade o' horticulture, seeing I was bred in the parish o' Dreep-daily, near Glasco, where they raise lang kail under glass, and force the early nettles for their spring kail!"
* A nettle-leaf placed on the tongue, and pressed against the palate is said to have a similar effect.
"Gin ye be for lang kail,"
Says the old Scotch song, -
"Cow (pluck) the nettle, cow the nettle early; Gin ye be for lang kail,
Cow the nettle early.
Cow it laigh, cow it sune, Cow it in the month of June, Just when it is in the blume,
Cow the nettle early.
The auld wife with ae tuith, Cow the nettle, cow the nettle, The auld wife with ae tuith,
Cow the nettle early".
And doubtless the almost toothless "auld wife" would find the pottage so produced a very comfort-able and appropriate food.
The poet Campbell in his "Letters from the South," writes, "last of all my eyes luxuriated in looking on a large bed of nettles. Oh, wretched taste! Your English prejudice perhaps, will ex-claim; ' is not the nettle a weed, if possible, more vile than even your Scottish thistle?' But be not nettled, my friend, at my praise of this useful weed. In Scotland I have eaten nettles; I have slept in nettle-sheets, and I have dined off a nettle-table-cloth. The young and tender nettle is an excel-lent pot-herb. The stalks of the old nettle are as good as flax for making cloth. I have heard my mother say, that she thought nettle-cloth more durable than any other species of linen."* The writer was not, however, aware that in the county of Shropshire a similar use is made of the plant, as is also the case in Ireland; the stalks being dressed for the purpose in the same manner as those of flax and hemp, to the last of which, as before stated, the nettle is allied. The French make a peculiar and excellent paper from these fibres. In America, where the nettle is one of the weeds which so sin-gularly and so constantly follow the "footsteps of the whites," it is manufactured into linen; as it is in Siberia, also.
The natives of Kamschatska use it to form their fishing lines; and in Hindustan the delicate and far-famed "grass-cloth" (Chu Ma), is woven from the fibres of an indigenous nettle; while the old German name for muslin, nessel-tuch (nettle-cloth), shews, as Schleiden observes, how general must formerly have been the use of this substance. This name recalls to us the tale of Hans Christian Andersen, of the loving sister, who trod out, with her naked and tender feet, the sting-ing nettle-plants, in order to prepare the fibres with which to spin the web, that alone could restore to their human forms, the brothers who had been meta-morphosed by the spells of witchcraft. It raises re-collections of the old legend of the Rhine Castle of Eberstein, and of the hard-hearted castellan, who refused to let his little maiden marry until she had spun her own wedding-shirt, and his winding-sheet, from the nettles which grew on her father's grave, though he would never allow her time to weed or adorn it; of how her heart was almost broken - so the story goes - as she brooded over her, apparently, interminable woes; until a good, little, old woman - the ancestress, it is to be supposed, of all the thrifty spinners and knitters of modern Germany heard her tale and undertook the task, producing from the substance which had been hitherto be-lieved to be so useless, two pieces of linen of extra-ordinary fineness.