NETTLES: AN UNLIKELY HERO
The nettle is a controversial plant, historically hated. But it is time to celebrate this prickly customer – right down to its nasty sting
The bane of gardeners everywhere, stinging nettles are ugly, aggressively take over areas, and are a painful pest. Right? Well, it’s easy to view them that way, but they also have so many positives, including the fact that they support forty different species – which is incredible for one plant!
That amazing statistic makes the stinging nettle one of the most important native plants for wildlife in the UK.
So is it time to start the rehabilitation of the nettle into a useful member of society Let’s look at the negatives...
Nettles have developed an efficient defence against being eaten by grazing animals: its painful sting. Anyone who has ever felt that awful tingling sensation, and the irritating red lumpy rash that goes with it, won’t forget it in a hurry.
Hollow stinging hairs called trichomes cover the leaves and stems. They are formed from a single, elongated cell, and made from silica, the same stuff as glass, and are just as brittle. At the base of every hair is a reservoir of liquid that is an impressive mix of toxins, including histamine, serotonin, acetylcholine, and formic acid – although some parts of the mix are still a mystery to scientists!
As soon as something brushes against the delicate hair, the end snaps off, and the poisonous liquid squirts along the tube…and into the poor creature or person that touched it.
The hair is as efficient as a hyperdermic needle injecting into the skin – which may not be pleasant, but is very impressive. What’s even more incredible is that it has been discovered that nettles in heavily grazed areas grow even more hairs to protect themselves, reacting to their environment.
The nettle is a highly successful plant that is common across the world, and across habitats. It prefers rich soils, which is why it does well around human settlements, benefiting from the waste we produce. In fact, the presence of nettles in the middle of nowhere often indicates where old settlements once were that have long since disappeared.
But what is the secret of its great success?
Its jagged leaves hold the key. They are arranged so that the ground below them gets absolutely no light – meaning
nothing else can grow. Look at them closely and you’ll see that between the big leaves are little leaves, to fill every space and ensure it maximizes on the light. This ability is called phenoplasticity.
It spreads by means of seeds and underground rhizomes that creep around just under the surface of the soil. It is these underground shoots that mean it can even re-establish quickly after fire.
So there are the negatives: nettles have evolved an efficient defence, and a brilliant way of ensuring they
many, but nettles can actually be a gardener’s best friend.
Recent experiments have proved that nettles are a beneficial weed if used as a companion plant. A patch of nettles in the garden is a tasty treat for many insects (including aphids) and a primary food source for caterpillars – and if they are busy munching on nettles, they won’t be attacking your prized flowers and vegetables.
Harvest nettles to create a nutritious, nitrogen-rich plant food that also acts as an insect repellent. Sounds too good to be true? Read on!
First, cut the nettles into small pieces and put into a large container. Weigh them down with something heavy, then add water, ensuring they are completely submerged. Leave for approximately three weeks – if it’s smelly, it’s working! When it’s ready to use, dilute it with roughly ten parts of water per one part of concentrate, then use it as plant food. If you also spray it on foliage, it will deter pests and even prevent fungal diseases.
Add nettles leaves (not roots) to your compost heap and it becomes an activator, speeding up the process of woody material decomposing and being broken down by bacteria.
If you grow fruit, when you pick them, pack nettle leaves around them and it will help to prevent mould.
Nettles are a hub for all manner of insects, birds, mammals, and even amphibians. What's more, they can help gardeners who want to be more 'green'. With the positives far outweighing the negatives, the nettle may have a nasty sting to its tale, but it is really the hero of the nature’s story.
push out their competitors. Now it’s time for the positives…
VITAL FOR WILDLIFE
Thanks to its sting, a huge number of different insects seek safety on a nettle, knowing they won’t be gobbled up accidentally by grazers, and, as mentioned earlier, stinging nettles support more than 40 species. From aphids, which adore this plant, to the blue tits that feast on the insects, nettles are irresistible to a wide variety of species – for example they are the number one destination for ladybirds with eggs to lay.
Moths you are likely to see amongst the stinging hairs of this plant include: Burnished Brass, The Spectacle, Beautiful Golden Y, Small Magpie, and Mother of Pearl.
The huge amount of insects living on the plant also lure in (and thus sustain) hedgehogs, shrews, frogs and toads.
By late summer, the plant produces a large quantity of seeds, which are eaten up by house sparrows, chaffinches, bullfinches and many other seed-eating birds.
There is even a Nettle Weevil that lives exclusively on, you guessed it, nettles.
GET RID OF NETTLES, AND KISS GOODBYE TO THESE BUTTERFLIES
Many species of butterfly are attracted to nettles for one reason or another, but some of our most colourful butterflies rely on it completely. That’s right, part of their life cycle depends solely on the nettle – take the much maligned stinging plant away and five species of butterfly beloved to many will cease to exist in this country: Peacock, Small Tortoiseshell, Comma, Red Admiral and Painted Lady.
To learn more about these butterflies and their reliance on nettles, click here, to read Beauties and the Beastly Plant.
It may come as a shock to