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History of Arnica and Nettle
02-29-2012

Arnica (Arnica montana; Asteraceae) and nettles (Urtica spp.; Urticaceae) have been used for several centuries to reduce inflammation and treat wounds and burns (See HC 111163-443).

Arnica comes from the Greek arnikis meaning lamb coat, probably referring to the flower's furry sepals. In Germany, arnica is known as wolfsblume or wolf flower. Old myths say that the spirit of the Corn Wolf wandering the cornfields added his strength to the upcoming harvest. Arnica was placed around the fields to prevent the wolf from escaping before the corn had ripened. (Note: "Corn" in ancient times was grain in general.)

Once upon a time, arnica grew wild in alpine meadows, covering Europe and America with bright orange-yellow daisy-like flowers. According to Swiss naturopath, Alfred Vogel, writing in the 1950s, "Arnica may be found anywhere in Switzerland up to a height of 8,500 feet." However, it has become scarce in its wild form and is protected in many parts of Europe. Historically, arnica was used both internally and externally; however, presently, it is used mostly in topical form. The German philosopher, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, swore by arnica tea to ease his angina. However, arnica should not be taken internally.

Going back to the Bronze Age, nettle was cultivated in Scotland and Denmark for the stalk fibers to make a durable, linen-like cloth. In fact, "nettle" comes from words meaning "textile plant." Native Americans also used it to make sacking and fishing nets. Nettles were used as an agent to irritate the skin of an inflamed area which causes blood flow to increase, thereby reducing inflammation. In Scotland, those suffering from gout and rheumatism would be scourged with nettle in the belief that it would help to alleviate their pain. Nettle is an alkalizing herb, neutralizing uric acid, and is a good source of minerals. Nettle leaves have been used to aid digestion, increase circulation, relieve fatigue and exhaustion, and alleviate allergy symptoms. Nettle is also an astringent and can help stop bleeding.

Ancient Egyptians used a nettle infusion to relieve arthritis and back pain. Hippocrates (460-377 BCE) reported 61 remedies using nettle. In the second century CE, Galen, the Greek physician, recommended nettle as "a diuretic and laxative, for dog bites, gangrenous wounds, swellings, nose bleeding, excessive menstruation, spleen-related illness, pneumonia, asthma, tinea, and mouth sores." The 16th century herbalist John Gerard used stinging nettle as an antidote for poison. In the 17th century, Culpeper, the astrologer-physician, recommended a nettle and honey extract as a gargle for sore throats and mouth infections. In the 19th century, Phelps Brown suggested using nettle internally as a diuretic and tonic. He recommended it as a remedy for dysentery, hemorrhoids, bladder and kidney stones, and used the seeds and flowers in wine for fevers. It was also employed in cases of infant diarrhea and eczema.

Lori Glenn,  Managing Editor