How wonderful it is to welcome the start of spring, with the light coming back and lengthening days. My garden starts to come back to life after a long dark winter and I go hunting for springtime herbs to eat and use as ingredients in soap and in healing balms.
Spring herbs tend to be weeds which means they will continue to grow through spring for an abundant supply. Some commonly available herbs in spring include:
- Dandelion, Taraxcum offiniale, which is very common and edible, with their flowers used to make beer and wine. Dandelion also has pain relieving and anti-inflammatory properties.
- Cleavers, Gallium apertine, which is used when they are very young before the seeds appear in summer. They can be eaten as a green vegetable or used in salves or balms for skin complaints, including insect bites and minor burns.
- Burdock, Arctium lappa, a skin favourite, highly antioxidant and anti-inflammatory.
- Lemonbalm, Mellissa officinialis, a beautiful springtime plant which smells like lemon and calms the senses. It is taken as a tea, powder, or essential oil.
Though it is the common Nettle, Urtica dioica, on which I wish to focus. This springtime weed happens to be an incredibly useful botanical used for both food and herbal medicine.
Nettles are a perennial flowering plant which thrive in rich soil and are identified by toothed leaves held oppositely along the stem. Nettles need no care at all – the ultimate crop for the lazy gardener or new herbalist.
As an Edible
Nettles are edible and are extremely nutrient dense containing vitamins C, A, K, iron, and calcium. They contain their highest vitamin content in the bright green baby leaves.
Nettles can be used in most dishes as a spinach substitute or made into pesto instead of basil. Traditionally in Scotland, nettles were eaten as a soup as they arrived just in time for the annual spring hungry gap.
In Herbal Medicine
Nettles have been used traditionally in herbal medicine regarded as nature’s anti-histamine, a blood tonic, and blood cleanser.
Nettles have been used in skincare remedies for a long time, as they are anti-inflammatory, astringent, bactericidal, and mildly deodorant. Nettles are high in phenols which give them powerful antioxidant properties with the ability to calm and soothe inflammation, which makes it the perfect choice in helping to restore dry skin. Nettle extract is also used in the treatment of scalp problems, to stimulate hair growth, and used to relieve eczema.
I want to share a recipe for making a healing nettle salve which I make in spring and use for dry skin, bruised skin, sore joints, and itchy skin.
Before picking nettles, make sure you wear sturdy gardening gloves as the sting is highly unpleasant. I pick the newer nettle leaves and try not to pick too many from one plant so it can regrow through the spring.
To dry nettles, leave them in a cool dry place for a few weeks or, alternatively, use a dehydrator on a very low heat setting.
What you need:
- 10g dried nettles
- 150g sweet almond oil
Sterilise the jar you will infuse the nettles and oil in. Boiling hot water should do it in a pan.
Infuse dry nettles in almond oil for a minimum of a month. Add slightly more to your original oil infusion as the nettles absorb the sweet almond oil.
What you need:
- 56g beeswax
- 7 drops tea tree essential oil
- 4 drops lavender essential oil
- Jar with lid for infusion (I use a mason jar)
- Pan (I use an old pan for making balms, one I don’t use for cooking anymore. You can also melt the beeswax in a bowl over the pan)
- Muslin bag or cloth for straining
- Jars with lids to fill with balm
Once the infusion is ready, sterilise the container(s) you will use for your salve, also in hot boiling water (mould can grow if not sterilised properly).
Weigh the beeswax and add to the pan or bowl.
Weigh and strain the infusion with a muslin cloth or bag into the pan you will make the salve in.
Melt all the beeswax and almond oil and once melted, add the lavender and tea tree essential oils.
Then pour into the containers, leaving off the containers lids until fully solid.
Cairi Balmain has years of experience growing vegetables and fruits in her garden in the Shetland Islands where the weather is extremely challenging. She also makes traditional, cold process, botanical soaps and botanical balms from home grown herbs and flowers. You can follow Cairi’s vegetable growing and botanical soap making adventures on her Instagram account.