This section is from the book "Meals Medicinal", by W. T. Fernie. Also available from Amazon: Meals Medicinal: With "Herbal Simples" Curative Foods From the Cook in Place of Drugs From the Chemist.
"She that hath hap a husband had to burie, And is therefore in heart no sad but merrie: Yet if in shew good manners she would keep, Onypns and mustard seed will make her weep".
"Flamingoes, and Mustard both bite," said the Duchess (Alice in Wonderland), and the moral is, "Birds of a feather flock together." "Only, Mustard isn't a bird," Alice remarked; "it's a mineral, I think," said Alice. "Of course it is," said the Duchess; "there's a large Mustard mine near here, and the moral of it is ' the more there is of mine, the less there is of yours.' " Although Mustard at table invariably flanks the "roast beef of old England" which gives national strength, and sinew, yet according to a familiar nursery rhyme it is credited with opposite effects by children, who taunt a craven playmate as:-
" Cowardy, cowardy custard, Who ate his mother's mustard".
The white Mustard is best known to us as produced for its young leaves to be eaten in the combination of Mustard and Cress with a salad, or with bread and butter. This plant, which grows, when uncultivated, on waste ground with large yellow flowers, does not afford under any conditions a pungent oil like the black Mustard. "When in the leaf," John Evelyn tells in his Acetaria, "Mustard in young seedling plants is of incomparable effect to quicken, and revive the spirits, strengthening the memory, expelling heaviness, preventing the vertiginous palsy, and a laudable cephalic, besides being an approved anti-scorbutic".
He active principle of this white Mustard is sinapin, and the seed germinates so rapidly that it has been said a salad of the herb may be grown therefrom whilst the joint of meat is being roasted for dinner. When swallowed whole in teaspoonful doses three or four times a day the seeds will exercise mechanically a laxative effect, being voided from the lower bowel without undergoing any perceptible change except that their outer skin has become a little softened, and mucilaginous. For a relaxed sore throat a gargle of bruised Mustard-seed tea proves serviceable. Chemically the Nettle (Urtica dioica, and urens), of familiar acquaintance all over the country, is so constituted as to provide a food available for helping to obviate several bodily ailments, and infirmities. It contains formic acid, mucilage, mineral salts, ammonia, carbonic acid, and water. A strong infusion of the fresh leaves is soothing, and healing as a lotion for burns; the dried leaves, when burnt so as to give off their fumes to be inhaled, will relieve bronchial, and asthmatic troubles, ten grains, or more, being thus employed at a time.
As far back as in the year 1400 an entry was made in the churchwarden's account at St. Michael's, Bath, "fro urticis venditis ad Laurencium".
In 1890 a West End vegetable dealer in London recognized the wholesome, and nutritious properties of young Nettle tops when cooked for the table, and he arranged for a regular supply of the same on finding that a ready sale existed for these wares. If Nettle tops are taken as a fresh young vegetable in the spring, and early summer, they make a very salutary, and succulent dish of greens, which is slightly laxative; but during autumn they are hurtful. The true Stinging Nettle, with a round, hairy stalk, and which bears only a dull, colourless bloom, must be secured, and not a labiate Nettle with a square stem. The stinging effect of the true Nettle is caused by an acrid secretion contained in minute vesicles at the base of each of the stiff hairs; and urtication, or flogging with Nettles, is an old external remedy which has been long practised for chronic rheumatism, and loss of muscular power. A tea made from young Nettle tops' is a Devonshire cure for nettlerash. But such a decoction, when brewed too strong, and drunk too freely, has produced a severe burning over the whole body, with general redness of the skin, and a sense of being stung; the features became swollen, and minute vesicles broke out, which presently burst, and discharged a limpid fluid.
Again, Nettle tea will promote the extrication from the body of gouty gravel through the kidneys; and fresh Nettle-juice, given in doses of from one to two tablespoonfuls, is a most serviceable remedy for losses of blood, whether from the nose, the lungs, or some other internal organ. If a leaf of the herb be put upon the tongue, and pressed against the roof of the mouth, it will stop a bleeding from the nose.
For a bee-sting the immediate application of a Dock leaf rubbed-in is a familiar, and popular remedy, as antidotal to the formic acid of the bee venom. It is the same formic acid which causes smarting, and swelling from being stung by Nettles, with their lance-like leaves having at the base of each lance a diminutive sac which ejects a tiny drop of the formic acid into the wound inflicted. Such formic acid is, nevertheless, necessary to the well-being of our blood; it is found in the muscles of all flesh, and is believed to be an antidote against the uric acid of rheumatism, insomuch that to be stung purposely by bees is commended for uric acid rheumatic patients. Nettle-stinging will answer equally well on the same principle, whether by external application, or by eating young Nettles (of the stinging species) cooked in their own juices, or with only a lettuce leaf added for moisture. The cottage wife makes Nettle-beer, and considers it a cure for the gouty old folk: she does not know why, but only makes use of the knowledge handed down to her by past experience from her predecessors.
It is the formic acid in the Nettle, with the phosphates, and the trace of iron, which constitute it such a valuable medicinal food.
A crystallized alkaloid (which is fatal to frogs in a dose of one centigramme) has been isolated from the common Stinging Nettle. If planted in the neighbourhood of beehives the Nettle will serve to drive away frogs. In Italy, where herb soups are much in favour, the "herb knodel" of Nettles made into round balls like dumplings, are esteemed as nourishing, and purifying. When plainly boiled the young Nettle-tops closely resemble spinach. A good melted butter as a sauce improves them, mightily; or cottagers compound an excellent white sauce for the purpose by melting a good-sized lump of lard in a basin, then rubbing in as much flour as the liquid will take up, making it quite free from lumps, and filling up the basin with boiling water;. afterwards adding salt to taste; the sauce affords just the sufficiency of fat which is otherwise lacking. The Nettle is one of the very best anti-scorbutics. Macaulay, who hated Brougham, wrote concerning him: "His powers are gone, like a dead Nettle: his spite is immortal." Nettle leaves, as already said, when dried, and powdered, will sometimes relieve asthma, and similar bronchial troubles, by inhalation, whilst other measures fail; eight, or ten grains should be made to smoulder, and their fumes inspired when spasmodic difficulty of breathing comes on, or at bedtime.