Stinging Nettle, Urtica dioica

‘Urtica because they ‘urt you’…. I remember Profesor David Bellamy saying this once on a TV program. He also said that Brooklime was called  Veronica beccabunga because it bungs up becks.  Forgive me but I feel a minor rant coming on and it is that TV has often portrayed naturalists as comic nerdy characters. People like David Bellamy, Bill Oddie and going back a bit Magnus Pyke, Johnny Morris and even Terry Nutkins. This does nothing to encourage youngster to get interested in wildlife and then perhaps to go on to be conservationists or scientists, which we are in need of these days. I suppose we have a least got David Attenborough and maybe Chris Packham although there is still an element of the whacky about these two.  OK enough.

In fact Urtica comes from the Latin verb urere, meaning “to burn.”

Stinging Nettle


So it is Urtica and there are two species of Urtica in Britain, there is this one the Common or Stinging Nettle and then there is the Small Nettle. Both sting and look quite similar, but the Small nettle is an annual and grows in more open places.  The Common Nettle is a perennial and will grow in a range of places, and can often be found in hedgerows and open woodlands. Perhaps the most relevant condition for its growth is high levels of nitrogen and potassium in the soil. So it is often found where man has been active in the past or where there has been a bonfire site. It is growing in our patch of Ninewells wood and is quite frequently found where we burnt off some heaps of brash following the removal of the Corsican Pines a few years ago. Also associated with these bonfire sites are Gorse,  Rosebay Willow Herb and Sheep’s Sorrel.

Returning to the scientific name Urtica dioica,  and the species name dioica, this comes from the plant being dioecious meaning there are separate male and female plants and obviously the flowers are different. They are not pretty, they use wind pollination and as such the flowers are long and dangly rather like those of Oak trees, an example of parallel evolution I suppose.

Now having had a quick look at what there is about Nettles on Wikipedia and other internet sites I can say that there is a stack of stuff, so I will restrict my comments to what I know from personal experience and contacts.. You can look up all the other stuff yourself.

I used to take my students to an area of Norfolk called Foulden Common, this is a SSSI and is a wonderful area. It has chalk grassland, fens, through to carr and then deciduous woodland, it also has a nice little stream and some special features called pingoes. Now in the early years of my visits there (1980’s) I would sometimes meet up with an old gentleman who lived in Foulden, he had a black and white dog.  Unfortunately I never found out the mans name, or maybe cannot remember it?  He used to tell me all sorts of things about the history and ecology of the common. He told me that he was a Fen Reeve which is like Shire Reeve of Sheriff. So a sort of elected member of the community with the responsibility for the management of the Common including the Fen area.   As I said he told me lots of interesting things, all the time the dog barked at me incessantly and three quarters of what he told me he had already told me many times before. However it was worth it for the one quarter of new stuff. Here are some photos of the common on a particularly stormy day.

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He told me that in days gone by they used to lay the hedges and this work involved the men getting regularly stung by nettles. However these people never developed rheumatism in their old age.  Also he told me with somewhat of a twinkle in his eye that local people would get naked and beat themselves with nettles. This was done at certain ritual times of year and it caused their skin to glow and a warm sensation would ensue, also that the men would beat themselves in a particular place and that resulted in a degree of enlargement which was also desirable.  Hmmm …. I have not tried it. There is a sort of reference to this on wikipedia, though no mention of the specific area where the nettles were applied, it says.

Urtication, or flogging with nettles, is the process of deliberately applying stinging nettles to the skin in order to provoke inflammation. An agent thus used is known as a rubefacient (something that causes redness). This is done as a folk remedy for treatment of  rheumatism.

I am not that fussed about nettle stings though and when trying to weed them out my garden I will grab hold of them regardless, I think that if you grab them more forcefully then you get less stung than if you are somewhat hesitant. Ridding them from your garden is a real pain as they produce a powerful network of underground rhizomes and can spread quite rapidly and effectively by this method. They also have very strong and spreading roots which have a characteristic bright yellow colour.

We all know about nettle soup and I have tried it a few times… I would not recommend it. You need to use nettle shoots which are as young as possible and you need other ingredients like chicken stock to make anything of it. However we once stopped at a restaurant in the Dordogne region of France and they served Nettle soup and it was surprisingly good.

Finally we know that nettles are the food plant for various butterfly caterpillars; Peacock, Small Tortoiseshell, Red Admiral and Comma, and it is an often quoted idea that leaving a ‘wild patch’ in the garden is good for the butterflies….  Rubbish, total rubbish. The controlling factor on butterfly population is not food source. There is hardly a shortage of nettles for Peacock butterfly caterpillars to consume. Given the population of nettles we should be overrun with Peacocks and Tortoiseshell butterflies, leaving a patch of nettles at the end of your garden is not going to make any difference what so ever.  I do not know what exactly controls their population. It is probably a  variety of factors including winter temperatures, pesticides, places to hibernate, predators and others but availability of nettles is not going to be anywhere in the to 10.

Well I think that is enough to be going on with. I will look out for a male and female nettles in flower so I can add photos of the flowers to this article in the near future.

Click to see other flowers from the Wye valley woodlands

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