We are back in Belgium, our homeland in Western Europe, after being in North America for 7 months, and I see the world through new eyes. With the current health crisis still going on and an immense fear still in the air, I feel that it is important to spread awareness about all the ways to maintain your own health. I want to talk more about medicinal plants that are easily found in the wild or spices that you most likely already have in your kitchen, or little things you can do everyday that will benefit your health immensely. I am not a health professional and I don’t want to convince anyone that I have the ultimate herbal remedy for everything. I know that there are things going on inside your body that you often do not have control over, and especially when a certain illness has developed, it is wise to always seek help from a professional! But besides that, everyday you have the power to love and nourish your body by choosing what you eat, what products you use, by moving and breathing mindfully and so on. So, there are things you can’t control, but the power to make these choices is always within you, and that, to me, is such a wonderful thing!
While growing up in the city, I was not always aware of nature and what important role it played in our world. Of course, on sunny days we fled to the areas of the city that were greener and forest-like, and that always felt wonderful. After Tim and I met each other, I quickly moved to a small town on the country side, about a fifty-minute drive away from the city and surrounded by forests and heaths. A new world opened before my eyes and I spend more and more time in the sweet embrace of Nature. For some reason, when I was learning more about medicinal plants, I did not think many of the plants I read about were to be found in Belgium. In my eyes, Belgium hardly had any real nature, apart from some forests in between the seemingly never-ending towns. But coming back to our homeland, I realize I was wrong. No, Belgium does not have vast, wide-spread forest going on for hours or enormous mountain ranges, or wild coastlines, but it does have its unique environment of deciduous forests and heaths.
So, after our travel, we set out to the forests to see what plants could be found. Arriving at the end of spring, we were too late to harvest some plants, but right in time for others. Nature is constantly changing, flowing in her life-cycles, and we can dance along, not mourning the things we’ve missed, but celebrating the plants we are right in time for.
We are deepening our knowledge about the healing plants of our homeland and while doing this, I thought it would be nice to write about the plants that can be found in the area where we are now which is Flanders, Belgium – in the Low Lands of Western Europe.
Belgium is divided into two main parts, Flanders, where they speak Flemish – Dutch, and Wallonia, where they speak Walloon – French. Flanders is more northern and is situated against the ocean. The natural environment is similar to The Netherlands, which is quite flat. Wallonia is more southern and mostly borders France, Germany and Luxembourg. The natural environments of the two parts are quite different. Flanders has beautiful deciduous forests and heaths, and the occasional pine forest (which is mostly not native but planted somewhere in the 19th century) but thanks to the density of the population, there is less biodiversity than in Wallonia. It has a coastline, which is mainly flat with a little dune here and there and a lot of towns. Wallonia is less densely populated and has more forests and hills, the highest point being 694 meters high called Signal de Botrange. They built a little tower there to let people reach a height of 700 meters, which is quite funny.
If there is one word I would have to put on Belgium, it would probably be wet. On average, there are 200 days of rain a year so it’s safe to say it rains a lot, and one of the plants that thrive on this is the well-known, versatile, loved-by-some, and hated-by-others stinging nettle.
Stinging Nettle (Urtica Dioica)
Common nettle, or stinging nettle, is one of the plants that I’ve known consciously for the longest time. We know it as brandnetel, which means burn(ing) nettle – for obvious reasons. Nettle grows abundantly in areas that have a lot of annual rainfall (and Belgium has that) and most people know nettle for the stinging sensation they experience when they accidentally venture into a nettle patch. But stinging nettle is so much more than that. It is often seen as a weed, and as quickly as possible removed from gardens, but nettle has so much to offer if we allow it. If the people only knew that instead of going to the store to buy spinach, they can go into their backyard to harvest the nettles they’ve been trying to get rid of. Such plants are truly gifts and have been used by our ancestors for many centuries.
The Uses of Stinging Nettle
Stinging nettle has an abundance of vitamins and minerals. To name a few, nettle contains calcium, potassium, magnesium, iron, and protein, as well as vitamins A, B, C, and K.
Fresh, nettle has to be lightly steamed or cooked (blanched) to remove the sting. After the sting has been removed, it can be used in any meal as a replacement for spinach and much more. Think green smoothies, nettle pesto, nettle omelet, nettle soup… the options are endless. Drying also makes the sting go away and afterward it can be used in an infusion, infused oil, tincture, and so on. Nettle nourishes and supports the body systems, and is often called upon in times when the body needs extra strength such as after an illness or pregnancy. For a while now, one of the drinks I love to have in the morning (or any time of day) is a simple nettle infusion. A cup of warm nettle tea for chilly mornings, or an overnight nettle infusion for warm summer days. It is one of those perfect drinks to start your day, nourishing your body with essential minerals and vitamins.
Nettle is also known as an efficient remedy for inflammation and rheumatic conditions such as diabetes and arthritis. Not only does eating nettle of drinking nettle tea help, but there is even a practice called urtication, which is stinging the particular area of the body with nettles, and is thought to help with relieving the pain. Other than this, nettle also can encourage hair growth. This can be by ingesting nettle through food, tea, capsules, externally massage the area with nettle oil, or … yes! sting that bald spot!
Other than providing food and medicine, nettle has also been used as a natural light-green dye or for its fibers to make things such as baskets, clothes, and fishing nets. Nettles are also cooked (or left to rot for a few weeks) and is afterward added to the soil of a garden as a fertilizer or as a natural remedy against insects.
“When in doubt, use nettles” – a quote by David Hoffman, an American herbalist. Nettle is one of my favorite herbs, thanks to its abundance, its many uses, and my connection to it from a young age. Hopefully, the public view on nettles takes a turn soon, from being an invasive weed to being an amazing source of food and medicine (and clothes or baskets – if you have the skills.)
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
The next herb I’d like to talk about is another well-known one, the common dandelion. The name dandelion is derived from dent de lion which means lion’s tooth in French. We call it paardenbloem which means horse flower, or occasionally pisbloem when we were younger. The literal translation of this name is pee flower, probably referring to its diuretic (removing fluid from the body) properties. With its bright yellow flowers and afterward its puffball of seeds that can be blown in the wind, dandelion is another plant that I’ve known for as long as I can remember. As with nettle, it’s often dismissed as a weed, thanks to its abundance, resilience, and the fact that its bright flowers stand out on perfectly green lawns. But, let’s all hope that in the future when more awareness is spread about the wonders of weeds, dandelion will also be welcomed into everyone’s hearts and homes.
What does dandelion do for our gardens?
Before actually talking about all the things dandelion can do for your health, let’s look at another reason why someone would want it in their garden. Dandelion is a very beneficial plant to have in the garden. First of all, dandelion is one of the first flowering plants of spring, making it a very important one for all the bees and all of our other pollinator friends. Besides that, dandelion’s roots grow quite deep and make their way through compact soil, loosening it, making way for air and water to flow through and carrying minerals from the deep soil to the surface. This also attracts earthworms who play a valued role in our ecosystems, and in maintaining healthy soil.
What does dandelion do for our bodies?
As for food and medicine, dandelion has plenty to offer too. Rich in minerals and vitamins such as calcium, magnesium, iron, potassium, and vitamins A, C, and K, dandelion is a wonderful plant to add to your daily lives for a nutritional boost.
Dandelion is an herbal bitter, which is known to be beneficial to the digestive system. It helps to relieve constipation and promotes proper absorption of nutrients. Dandelion root does wonders for the liver and the kidneys, and thanks to its diuretic properties, it can help with urinary tract infections too.
The yellow flowers or flower petals are edible, as are the leaves and roots. The flowers are best harvested in springtime and can be dipped in batter and fried, used in salads, or made into a delicious jam. The leaves can also be used in salads, soups, and so on. The best time to harvest the leaves is in the early moments of spring when they are not too bitter yet. In spring or autumn, you’ll find the perfect moment to harvest the roots, which can be dried and chopped up and used in meals or to make a decoction. The roasted roots are also used as a coffee substitute!
As you can see, the common dandelion and stinging nettle are two valuable plants to have in the garden, gifted to us by nature, with the ability to heal our bodies through food and medicine – if we allow them. So, hopefully, after reading this blog post, you will be inspired to dive deeper into the wonderful world of these healing plants that many consider to be weeds, and how they can support us throughout our lives. Invite them into your gardens and homes, you won’t regret it!