Nettle – Day 5 of 30 Days [Biblically] Wild

Nettle – חָרוּל (charul), סִרְפָּד (sirpad)  and possibly קִמּוֹשׂ (qimmos

Common Nettle (Urtica dioica) Photo Credit: David James/WSU

Over the years my attitude to nettles has changed. As a lad, they were ubiquitous, lurking menaces that, no matter what I did to avoid them, inevitably stung me and sent me racing to find a nearby dock leaf. Moreover, they were found in areas that I tended to associate with the least conducive for play; those boggy, shadowy, overgrown areas, thick with snail and slug slime. In those days they were just ‘stingers’ and the places they were found were the strange and dank-smelling ‘stingers patch.’ However, more recently, I have grown more and more attracted to these places and, particularly on hot, dry days, actively seek out these proud plants with their delicate, understated flower heads, and their heady, fresh scent. When so much is appearing to struggle for life, it is good to find something that celebrates its hardiness and its tenacious and spiky hold on life.

A difficult plant in more ways than one

Israel has three species of nettle which grow throughout the country. Zohary (1982:162) states that they are ruderal, being found on abandoned spaces (often within cultivated areas that have become neglected). However, they can sometimes also be found in the desert. He (ibid) suggests that their capacity to sting “makes them useful as metaphors” to the biblical writers. Thriving on phosphate rich soils, far from indicating barrenness, the presence of nettles tends to indicate areas of high fertility. An archaeologist once told me that he uses them to help identify burial sites and places where organic matter has been buried (see Mabey, 1998:15). Musselman (2007:203-204) observes that, as well as thriving in the nitrogen-rich areas fertilized by livestock, it also provides them with nutritious food. However, identifying them within the Bible can prove to be as tricky and as prickly as the plant itself!

Most literature supports the translation of charul as nettle: see United Bible Societies (1980:152); Zohary (1986:162); Goodfellow (2015:74). Zohary (ibid) argues that the Hebrew root ch-a-r means ‘scorching’ or ‘burning’ is a good descriptive of the nettle’s sting.

חָרוּל (charul) occurs three times in the Bible and each time it is associated with waste or abandoned places. Tristram (1883) writes that:

[The nettle is a] tall and vigorous plant, often six feet high, the sting of which is much more severe and irritating than that of our common Nettle. It particularly affects old ruins, as near Tell Hum, the ruined Khan by the bridge over the Jordan, and forms a most annoying obstacle to the employer who wishes to investigate the old remains.

Tristram (1883:474)

The first reference is rather poignant and relates to those who are forced to live rough:

6 In the gullies of wadis they must live,
in holes in the ground, and in the rocks.
7 Among the bushes they bray;
under the nettles they huddle together.

Job 30:6-7 (NRSV)

Goodfellow (2015:74) points out that a bed of nettles is hardly the most comfortable of situations(!). However, not everyone is totally convinced that the writer of Job is referring here to the nettle plant. Harris (1824:277) argues that the text seems to imply that the plant would need to be tall enough for people to shelter under. Nevertheless, the references to gullies and wadis suggests that these would be the secluded and damp locations in which nettles would be expected to grow.

Woodville, William. 1793. “Urtica dioica (Stinging Nettle) – Plate 146.” Special Collections, USDA National Agricultural Library. Accessed April 7, 2019, https://www.nal.usda.gov/exhibits/speccoll/items/show/922.

Charul is also used to indicate the consequence of laziness. Although it does not appear in the cursing of the land in Genesis (3:18), the writer of Proverbs 24 contends – with perhaps the wearied wisdom of the gardener – that land left untended will soon grow a crop of nettles.


30 I passed by the field of one who was lazy,
   by the vineyard of a stupid person; 
31 and see, it was all overgrown with thorns;
   the ground was covered with nettles,
   and its stone wall was broken down. 

Proverbs 24:30-31 (NRSV)

The final instance more overtly associates the plant with (recently) deserted or abandoned sites.


Moab shall become like Sodom
   and the Ammonites like Gomorrah,
a land possessed by nettles and salt-pits,
   and a waste for ever.

Zephaniah 2:9b-c (NRSV)

More nettles?

Zohary (1982:162) argues that there the Hebrew term סִרְפָּד (sirpad) should also be considered to refer to the nettle. The word occurs only once in the Bible and is found in the famous passage of restoration in Isaiah 55 where it generally is translated as ‘brier’:


12 For you shall go out in joy,
   and be led back in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
   shall burst into song,
   and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. 
13 Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress;
  instead of the brier [sirpad] shall come up the myrtle;
and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial,
   for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off. 

Isaiah 55:12-13 (NRSV)

A quick check through other English translations shows that some do offer the reading of ‘nettle’ (for example, NLT, NASB, NET). The image being presented is clear either way, the scrubby, wastelands (suggested by the in-cursive growth of either brier or nettle) will begin to yield the myrtle – an aromatic plant that was well- loved in biblical and post-biblical times and which often “figured in betrothal rites” (Zohary, 1982:119). Again, horticulturally, this makes sense. The land able to sustain the nettle is fertile enough to grow more valued crops like myrtle (which was used for the production of perfumes and inks – see Mussleman, 2007:200).

Tritram (1883:474) and Harris (1824:277) also identify the קִמּוֹשׂ (qimmos) as denoting the nettle. It is found twice within the Hebrew texts (Isaiah 34:13 and Hosea 9:6). However, more recent translators and botanists (see for example Jenson, 2012: loc cit. 2011) are more cautious, with the belief it probably refers to thorny or thistle type plant – although, I note that the ESV and NIV, as well as several other versions still favour ‘nettle’.

Dog nettle (also called burning or dwarf nettle), Urtica urens, Image: H. Zell. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Urtica_urens_002.JPG

‘The prince among green leafy plants’

As we have seen, references to nettles by the biblical writers tend to use them as symbols of neglect and abandonment. Although, nettle species found in Israel are different from European varieties, Jensen (2012: loc cit. 2011) observes that of the three species native to Palestine (Urtica hulensis, U. membranacea, U. pilulifera and U. urens), only the latter, the dog or burning nettle (Urtica urens), is common to Northern Europe, it is nevertheless rather surprising that there is no reference to the wide number of uses that these versatile plants offer (see, Musselman, 2007:205).

I would imagine that most reading this will have heard of (even if you’ve not actually tried it) nettle tea – it tastes pretty much what you would expect it to taste, but perks up after two or three shots of coffee are added!!

Being an extremely rich source of protein, as well as being high in vitamin C, B and A (as well as containing calcium, potassium, iron, etc.), it is clear why, bushcraft expert, Ray Meers (2007) describes it as:

[W]ithout doubt the prince among green leafy plants. There are all manner of different ways of cooking it – it really is the most versatile plant.

Meers (2007:264)

Meers (2007:32) notes that even, relatively recently, during times of severe hardship and resource-stress, nettles are used as a staple, citing that during the Bosnian crisis stinging nettles were being sold in the markets. Mabey (1998:16) observes that, as well as using nettles as manure (fertiliser), the were part of the Roman diet. He (ibid) also provides a recipe for ‘St Columba’s broth’

St Columba’s Broth

Pick young stinging nettles before the end of June when the are 4 to 5 ins tall
  - one handful per person
Boil, drain chop
Return to pan with water and milk
Reheat and sprinkle with fine oatmeal or oats
Keep stirring until thick

It is highly unlikely that the ancient Hebrew writers were unaware of the nettle’s nutritional value or, indeed, of its other uses.

Weave your own nettle trousers!

Anyone attempting to disentangle woody nettle stems from their rotary mowers will know how incredibly tough this plant is. Weaving nettle stems to create cordage is one of the first essential skills any bushcrafter will learn. This is an ancient technique and, in Britain, flint arrowheads have been found that had been secured to their wooden shafts by nettle cord (Mabey, 1998:19).

Nettles were also used to make cloth and was continued to be produced in Scotland and Scandinavia into the early 19th century (Mabey, 1998:19).

Remnants of Bronze Age nettle cloth found at a burial site at Lusehøj, Denmark.

Nettles were also very useful in creating high quality and long lasting textiles. A 2,800 year old remnant of nettle cloth was found at a Bronze Age burial site in Lusehøj, Denmark. Analysis by the University of Copenhagen suggests that it was produced in Austria, possibly indicating that this was a highly valued item.

 Nettle textiles could apparently compete with textiles made from flax and other materials because top quality nettle fabrics are as good as raw silk.

Ulla Mannering (2012)
https://humanities.ku.dk/news/2012/nettles_reveal_long_distance_bronze_age_trade_connections/

If you fancy giving it a try, here is a handy tutorial –

The nettle might be the ‘prince of green leafy plants’ and has faithfully served humans for thousands of years and yet, nonetheless, our attitudes to it are remarkable unchanging. Like the biblical authors it so often remains the vexatious weed, synonymous with abandonment and deprivation.

Coincidentally, just after I had finished writing this entry, I was reading Mark Boyle’s (2019) The Way Home and I came across this rather wonderful reflection on the nettle:

“My fingers are tingling as I write. I’ve been out picking nettles to make soups for lunch and dried tea for whatever. They’re easier to gather than most people imagine. Such was their place in the diets of old that there’s an old Irish rhyme which reminded children how to pick nettles:
If you gently grasp a nettle,
It will sting you for your pains.
Grasp it tightly like a rod of metal,
And it soft as silk remains.

If your mind is entirely focused on the nettles, you can pick them all day without getting stung. The moment you start daydreaming, they will get you good. Each leaf is a Buddha.”
Boyle (2019:93)

Take part in the Wildlife Trust’s ’30 Days Wild” challenge

References

Boyle, M. (2019) The Way Home: Tales from a life without technology. London: Oneworld Publications.

Goodfellow, P. (2015) Flora and Fauna of the Bible: A guide for bible readers and naturalists. Oxford: John Beaufoy.

Harris, T.M. (1824) The natural history of the Bible ; or, A description of all the quadrupeds, birds, fishes, reptiles, and insects, trees, plants, flowers, gums, and precious stones, mentioned in the sacred scriptures: Collected from the best authorities, and alphabetically arranged. London: T. Tegg.

Jensen, H.A. (2012) Plant World of the Bible. [Kindle] Bloomington: Author House.

Mabey, R. (1998) Flora Britannica Book of Wild Herbs. London: Chatto and Windrus.

Mannering, U. (2012) Ancient stinging nettles reveal Bronze Age trade connections. University of Copenhagen.

Mears, R. (2007) Wild Food. London: Hodder and Stoughton.

Musselman, L.J. (2007) Figs, Dates, Laurel and Myrrh: Plants of the Bible and Quran. Portland, Oregon: Timber Press.

Tristram, H.B. (1883) The natural history of the Bible : being a review of the physical geography, geology, and meteorology of the Holy Land : with a description of every animal and plant mentioned in Holy Scripture. London: Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge.

United Bible Societies (1980) Flora and Fauna of the Bible. Helps for Translators. London: United Bible Societies.

Zohary, M. (1986) Plants of the Bible: A complete handbook. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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