I contacted Christina Stapley re the Autumnwatch Nettle Ointment recipe etc and she sent me the response below.
"In reply to comments on the herb society forum I would like to explain about the nettle scene on Autumnwatch. In choosing a herb to make into a medicine I needed it to be one easily recognisable to all, a herb that no-one minds you picking and one that is effective for a simple condition. Since Martin, who is genuinely interested in herbs asked me to make something to ease muscular strain and the nettle seeds were ready, it was indeed the herb to answer all needs.
In my opening comment about nettles being good for rheumatism, arthritis etc I was referring to the use of the plant internally. With the inevitable editing sometimes parts of a conversation can give the wrong idea. However they could hardly include almost a day of filming in a programme primarily about animals, birds etc rather than plants.
Yes, I have used nettle-seed ointment for rheumatism alongside other medicine and people like it, but it is not sufficient for full-blown arthritis on its own. That needs so much more. I have received many calls and emails from people hoping it will help serious conditions and I have repeatedly explained that firstly, herbalists cannot give out medicines without seeing the patient face to face to determine what is wrong and whether the medicine will help, and secondly that I gave it to Martin for muscular strain not arthritis.
Having cleared that up, on to the recipe. You will have noticed if you watched the episode that the seeds I was gathering were still green. You can include some brown, but not too many. Fill the extra virgin olive oil with the seeds.
For Martin's ointment I used first sun extraction and then heated the oil in a bowl over a pan of boiling water. It is too late in the year now for sun extraction and so a water bath will have to do. The source of the recipe was Roman, this recipe is at least two thousand years old but continued in use for over a thousand years. My first experiment with it was during a Roman herb workshop I was tutoring at Butser Ancient Farm several years ago. We heated the oil in a pot over the fire (that is hung above a fire - not set amongst the flames!) having rubbed on the infused oil we found it "re-ignited" any earlier nettle stings on our hands from the gathering, confirming that it gives a low dose of nettle sting. Something which has long been credited in folklore with helping rheumatism. I therefore continued to experiment with the oil thickened with beeswax into an ointment.
The modern way then is to heat the seeds in the oil over a pan of hot water until the oil changes colour and the herb is slightly crisped - some 3-4 hours.
Having strained the nettle seeds out using muslin I then add finely chopped beeswax - about 50g to 500ml of oil. With it melted in pour into prepared jars and add 1 drop of essential oil of tea-tree or lavender to each small pot as a preservative. In reply to the comment about not being able to reduce an oil, that is perfectly correct. I did not reduce anything, Martin simply presumed the whole of the large jar of oil was contained in his pot of ointment - not so.
I am continually researching historical recipes in order to rescue the helpful ones from being lost, also to enrich a history of herbal use I am writing.
Historical herb workshops are a great way to share this exploration, there will be more in 2010. Look out also for a piece on the nettle and all its uses coming soon on the Herb Society website.
All good wishes,