An invasive weed with a nasty sting to boot, nettles are among our most derided plants and most of us will have some painful nettle incident embedded in our earliest memories. Indeed, at one time the treacherous nettle was an instrument of torture with which medieval monks would flagellate their bare backs. But cast aside any prejudices and delve more deeply into the natural and cultural history of the nettle, and it quickly becomes apparent that this is a versatile and essential plant that deserves our respect.
The nettle is an incredibly important food source for wildlife, with more than 40 different insect species being either totally or partially dependant upon the plant, including several of our butterfly species and some types of moth. Red admiral, peacock, small tortoiseshell and comma butterflies all rely upon nettles for laying eggs and the growth of their caterpillars. Most grazing animals leave nettles well alone, so they provide the ideal place for caterpillars to develop without fear of being inadvertently munched by a deer or cow.
Aphids also horde onto nettles and just love to feed upon their new green shoots. These little sap-sucking bugs are food magnets for a number of other more beneficial creatures such as ladybirds, which also like to lay their eggs on nettles.
For gardeners, the ladybird is the perfect natural predator for a range of harmful insects including whitefly and red spider mite, so a nettle patch in an untended corner is a bit like a little pest control factory, continually churning out young ladybirds to the benefit of other parts of the garden.
Birds such as blue tits and warblers are also attracted by the numerous insects found on nettles, as are shrews, hedgehogs, frogs and toads. In late summer, the vast quantities of seeds produced by nettles are feasted upon by hungry finches.
Nettles can be useful to gardeners in other ways. They are fussy plants and like to grow in areas rich in nitrogen and phosphates, so a nettle patch in the garden is a good indicator of fertile soil. Crushed nettles mixed with water make a great nitrogen-rich natural liquid feed for garden plants, and chopped nettles are also useful for giving the compost heap a welcome boost by speeding up decomposition and adding nutrients.
Nettles have long been treasured by mankind for medicinal purposes, food and clothing. A linen type cloth can be made from thread obtained from nettle fibres, and sheets and tablecloths made from nettles were common at the end of the 18th century. The poet Campbell wrote: “I have slept in nettle sheets, and dined off a nettle table cloth more durable than any other linen.” In Denmark burial shrouds made of nettle fabric have been discovered that date back to the Bronze Age and during the First World War the Germans countered textile shortages by using nettle fibres to help make soldiers’ uniforms.
The nettle is high in iron, calcium and magnesium, making it much sought after in the past for the treatment of a number of ailments such as eczema, asthma and muscle aches and pains. Roman soldiers in Britain are said to have used nettles to treat their tired and painful legs after long marches in our cold and wet climate.
We have all heard of nettle tea and nettle soup tastes excellent too, with its wonderful dark green colour and deep fulsome flavour.
Of course, nettles have their all-too- familiar downside due to the small stinging hairs on the stem and leaves, which when touched or brushed against release an acid which causes that annoying itchy sting and rash. The trusted natural remedy is to rub the affected area with a leaf from the dock plant or “docken” leaves as we always used to call them during childhood. Interestingly, docks often grow near the same patches where nettles are found, and other effective natural treatments are the leaves of rosemary, mint or sage.
So, rather than regarding the nettle as a troublesome pest needing eradication, we should instead look upon them as exciting plants that need to be cherished for their important role in maintaining the health of our environment – and which also taste good and are a very useful ally for the gardener too.
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Weather for Edinburgh
Saturday 18 May 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 13 C
Wind Speed: 18 mph
Wind direction: North east
Temperature: 9 C to 18 C
Wind Speed: 8 mph
Wind direction: North east