Why we should all learn to love nettles

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Thinking about nettles (Urtica dioica) can evoke childhood memories of riding your bike along country roads. Or itchy white bumps on your hands and even your face when you picked blackberries from the hedge.

As an adult, you may have more recent memories of the pain of trying to eradicate stubborn nettles from your garden. Just when you think you’ve got them all, they reappear like difficult relatives for Christmas.

Stinging nettle is not high on many people’s lists of favorite plants. But there’s a lot more to this nettle species than people realize.

Let’s start with the basics. Nettles are amazing colonizers of bare and disturbed soil. Their long-lived seeds can lie dormant in the soil for five years or more. And those rhizomatous (joined) roots that make them so hard to pluck from the flower beds are something of a plant superpower that helps them establish new populations quickly.

Charles Darwin’s theory that stinging nettle seeds could survive a long immersion in salt water while being carried away by the sea turned out to be correct. A 2018 study found that their endurance allowed them to colonize overseas.

This may not sound like good news, but intensive agriculture, urban sprawl and pollution are destroying nature. The wildlife in our gardens and countryside depends on plants, but climate change is making it harder for them to grow. The resilience of stinging nettle makes it an indispensable tool in the fight to stop this crisis of nature.

Wildlife friendly

Nettle helps wildlife survive, especially in urban and agricultural areas. In the UK, they are a food plant for comma caterpillars, painted lady, peacock, red admiral and small hawksbill butterflies. The spread of these nettles in our gardens and wastelands (from their natural forest habitat) has allowed these butterflies to extend their range to our gardens and cities.

A peacock butterfly (Aglais io) seen basking on nettles in July

And not only butterflies rely on nettles. Ladybugs often lay their eggs on their leaves. This “gardener’s friend” has a voracious appetite for aphids, those annoying little green and black flies that suck the juice from our delicate plants and ruin our vegetables. Having nettles in our gardens and near our farmlands gives shelter to ladybugs and other insects, ready to feast when the aphid population increases.

Burning sensation

It is believed that stinging nettles with more stinging hairs are less likely to be eaten by animals such as rabbits, sheep and deer. So the reason why stinging nettles sting is simple self-defense.

They have tiny hairs on their leaves and stems that, when rubbed against an object, use a mechanical defense (the silica hairs break into the skin) and then a chemical defense (release of irritants such as histamine into the skin). Considering the havoc that man causes in nature, this seems to be a reasonable protective measure.

Close-up of stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) leaf showing stinger cells or hairs of trichomes or splinters

broadleaf dock (Rumex obtusifloius) likes similar growth conditions as stinging nettle, so they are often found together. There is actually no evidence that sorrel leaves cure nettle stings, but I still always use it – it doesn’t hurt and it makes me feel better.

Healing forces

If you are still not convinced about nettles, let’s talk about what they can do for our health. There is a long history of stinging nettle in folk medicine throughout Europe and beyond. There is scientific evidence that nettle (or extracts from its leaves, roots and stems) can treat hypertension (high blood pressure) and diabetes. They can even keep farmed fish and chickens healthy.

Nettle can be used to brew tea and beer, cook delicious soup and wrap cheese. They are very nutritious, full of vitamins A and C, as well as calcium and iron.

Nettles can also be used to make clothes. There is evidence that people in cool climates have used stinging nettles since the Bronze Age to create textile fibres. They were popular until widespread sheep farming increased the use of wool. Nettle fibers were also used in Europe during the shortages caused by the world wars. Traditional fiber crops like cotton won’t grow in cool, temperate climates, but stinging nettles do just fine.

Nettle leaves and a pile of natural fabrics on a brown background

Researchers are now investigating whether stinging nettle fibers can help meet today’s demands on clothing and automotive fabrics. Unlike cotton, they do not need fertilizers or herbicides and can be grown on poor and even polluted land. So they can be turned into a vegetable fiber that does not compete with food production.

We hope you are convinced that nettles are our friends and deserve a place in our village, even if they are annoying at times. You can even save yourself from weeding by leaving a small patch in your garden to attract butterflies.

This article has been republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Aimee Brett does not work for, consult, own or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has not disclosed any significant affiliations beyond her academic position.

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