When we choose an extract to put into our cosmetics it brings with it a story and if we are lucky, that story means something to us. One extract that holds meaning for me is the not-that-sexy and actually quite painful stinging nettle, a plant that I’ve had the pain and pleasure of getting up close and personal with all too often including several times when, as a child, I fell into a pile of them while wearing my swimming costume. Ouch!
The reason for sharing this with you now is that I quite often get customers who think about the herbal extracts they want to use as a bit of an after-thought, an add-on, a bonus or even the ‘fluff and bubbles’ stuff. I understand that mentality and have been prone to viewing the extracts a bit like that myself sometimes but all that changed for me when I recently met three different groups of people who truly know and have deep connections to their country. It made me think about where my bones come from, my country (in the ancestral sense) and that’s when this came up.
I was brought up with my family on my father's country, in a region of England known as the Midlands because… it was in the middle of the country (landlocked). Here in Australia I’d be known as a freshwater person and I’m happy with that, I feel like that’s me and it was around the freshwater that these things used to grow and I used to play.
In the cosmetic sense, the stinging nettle, Urtica dioica is something that my mum taught me about. She was my connection to the forest, its plants and its magic. She told me that stinging nettle was a good source of vitamin C but as a child I could never imagine tasting such a painful vegetable, I didn’t realise then that when you cook this the sting goes away! She also told me that this plant used to be used to treat eczema, a condition that I struggled with a lot as a child. Again, I could not imagine this plant in that way and as such, never begged to try it and stuck instead to my steroid cream and thick moisturisers.
Now as a chemist, I look at the plant with different eyes again. I see that this is a good source of chlorophyl, (a green pigment that can be used to colour anything from food to clothing), gallic acid (powerful antioxidant), vitamin A (skin repair) and mineral salts (barrier functioning), including sulfur (prevents skin infection) and magnesium (lowering cortisol which can reduce acne inflammation). In addition to its use in managing skin conditions the herb also has a history of use in hair care as a hair growth stimulant and scalp soother.
If I come back now into my present I am reminded of the white history on these shores. I picked a bunch of these nettles from Fox Hill Hollow, our home out west, and with every snip of the scissors, I thought about how these might have got here. Maybe they came on boats with the first fleet? Maybe they were deposited as stray seeds in the heavy boots of the most brutal of early colonisers? Maybe they were in the feed that the new ‘free men’ brought in to feed their cattle as they dreamed of their new life with all of its possibilities out here on the frontier. However, these seeds got here they took room and are now flourishing on a disturbed piece of woodland on our patch of Cowra-shire in New South Wales. They are as foreign as I am but like me, they have made themselves comfortable and are thriving. Like me, they have a job to do.
My job, this time, was to take my haul of nettles and turn it into an extract for a shampoo that I wanted to make for the family. I prepared this by infusing it in water (rather like you would a cup of tea). This wouldn’t necessarily be a good way to preserve the vitamin C concentration but I wasn’t worried about that. If I wanted vitamin C I might use glycerin or another method of extraction entirely. The extract was strained and then preserved before it was used in my shampoo formula. The shampoo contained a range of mild surfactants, a conditioning quat and some eucalyptus hydrosol that I’d just distilled also.
The exact details of my formula aren’t the focus of this blog piece, what is the focus are the stories that came pouring out of me once I sat back and gave them space to flow. I’ve been a bit stuck recently on account of the age and stage of life I’m at, not so much a mid-life crisis (there is no crisis), more of a mid-life reflection and re-directing of the precious resource called energy we all have. Walking through my own personal history and relationship with this plant and then harvesting and using it in a tangible way has really helped me to join some dots.
I don’t expect all of my customers to run through this process with all of their herbs but maybe, just maybe, taking the time to listen to the stories that the herbs we choose hold within them, whether personal or not, would help bring a deeper connection and more solid appreciation for these precious materials to the table. I kind of think that’s what the world needs more of these days, don’t you?