Nettle: such a useful plant in the garden

Urtica dioica, the common Nettle also called Stinging Nettle or ‘stinger’, is a perennial flowering plant that belongs to the Urticaceae family. Originally native to Europe, much of temperate Asia and western North Africa, it is now found worldwide.

The serrated leaf shape of Nettle is not easily confused with other plants
 

Nettle is often found as an understory plant in wetter environments, but it can also be present in meadows. It grows 1 to 2m tall in summer, dies down to the ground in winter, and is easily recognisable with its 3 to 15cm long deeply toothed leaves which are borne oppositely along the stem. Both the stems and leaves are covered with numerous stinging and non-stinging trichomes (hairs), whose tips come off when touched, turning them into needles that can inject several chemicals causing a painful sting.

 The stings from the hairs of Nettle give a painful rash

Nettle produces tiny green or white flowers from June to September. The flowers are wind-pollinated, and the male and female flowers are borne on separate plants: the male flowers projecting from the leaf-stem and the female flowers growing in long catkin-like clusters, which produce copious amounts of seeds. The plant spreads vegetatively with its yellow creeping rhizomes and roots, and often forms dense colonies.

The pendulous male flowers on Nettle
 

Nettle supports many species of insects including some of the most colourful butterflies. The most notable Nettle patch inhabitants are the small tortoiseshell, comma, red admiral and peacock butterfly larvae which feed in large groups hidden in silken tents at the top of the stems. You will also find moth species such as burnished brass, the spectacle, and beautiful golden Y. Lacewings prefer to lay eggs on Nettle leaves, and many Nettle patches hold overwintering aphids which swarm around the fresh spring growth and provide an early food source for ladybirds. These same aphids are eaten in large numbers by blue tits and other woodland birds. In late summer, the seeds of the Nettle provide a food source for many seed-eating birds, such as goldfinches.

Nettle fruits are a favourite food for seed-eating bird species
 

Nettle has many uses in the vegetable garden. It is an indicator of a fertile soil and is a ‘dynamic accumulator’ that takes up many minerals with its roots, including nitrogen, silicon and iron. Cut down, the foliage can be added to compost, or rotted down in rainwater to make a nutrient-rich liquid fertiliser.

Chopped up Nettle steeped in rainwater makes an excellent plant food in the garden
 

Historically, Nettle has been used to make clothing for almost 3,000 years, as ancient Nettle textiles from the Bronze Age have been found in Denmark. During the Second World War, hundreds of tons were gathered as a dye for army uniforms.

Nettle has many medicinal uses, including being astringent, diuretic and nutritive. It is a circulatory stimulant, promotes milk flow, lowers blood sugar, and was traditionally used to prevent scurvy.

I harvest Nettle leaves and dry them for tea in the spring. Delicious!
 

Nettle can be harvested for eating any time except when flowering or seeding. It has a high iron content, and can be used as a spinach substitute, juiced or used in soups and stews. It can also be used as the basis of a refreshing herbal tea or made into Nettle beer. Juice from the leaves have been used for hundreds of years to curdle milk for cheese-making if rennet is not available.

A holy blue butterfly on a Nettle leaf
 

When I'm out in the garden and inadvertently get stung by Nettle (because i never wear garden gloves!), I apply Ribwort Plantain salve on the rash to soothe the sting and the itching. It works wonders! Get Ribwort Plantain salve here.

 

Do you have a special use for Nettle in your garden, or a not-so-fond memory attached to it? Let me know in the comments!

📷 Nada54, Skalle-Per Hedenhos, Pokrajac, Frank Vincentz

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