Ten things you (probably) didn’t know about nettles

We’ve all felt their furry wrath of nettles on walks in the countryside, but there's a lot more to the spiky wild plant than their initial sting...

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They’ve give us some of the most agonising experiences of our young lives as nippers and they continue to upset our own children and grandchildren, but nettles are more than just needled irritants.

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The Cornish make a delicious cheese using them, the Nepalese make curries and some people even use them for clothing. They make a tasty soup, too! Here are ten unusual facts about this versatile and fascinating plant. 

1. Nettles support our butterflies

Red Admirals and Painted Ladies, Peacocks, Small Tortoiseshells and Commas are particularly fond of nettles. With butterflies on the decline generally, the plants provide an important food source for these pretty insects. They in turn help to pollenate our garden flowers and crops. With bees struggling too, we need to support these creatures as best we can, so think twice before removing nettles from the flowerbed.

 

2. Nettle clothes, anyone?

It might seem odd and terribly itchy, but the fibres in the nettle plant can and are often spun to make clothing. It’s no new phenomenon either; nettle fabric was used to make German uniforms in World War I.

Similar to hemp and flax in texture, scientists at De Montfort University in Leicester have used nettle fabric to make dresses in the past. It was often used to make tablecloths and bed sheets in Scotland and in Russia the juice from the plat has traditionally been used to create a green dye. A yellow dye comes from the roots.

3. More tea vicar?

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As many of you will know, nettle tea as a popular use for these potentially painful leaves, however boiling them nullifies their penchant for prickles.

As well as the popular nettle tea, the leaves have traditionally been used to make soup. They are used to coat a Cornish cheese known as Yarg, while in Northumberland the leaves are ground and sprinkled amongst the cheese during production by one cheese-maker.

Meanwhile, horse breeders have long fed nettles to horses to help provide a sleek coat, and in Sweden nettles are grown by farmers, dried out (causing them to lose their sting) and fed to dairy cattle as it increases milk production.

Nettle pesto, wine and beer are all commonly produced foods and drinks.

4. What’s in a name?

The Latin for the Nettle plant is ‘dioica’. It means ‘two houses’ and is a reference to the fact that the male and female flowers are carried on separate plants.

It has been suggested that the term ‘nettle’ is derived from the Old English for needle – a reference to the stinging leaves.

5. A deadly sting

The British nettle carries its stinging barbs on the stem and the underside of the leaf for protection from those animals that might eat or uproot it.

Native British nettles inject a cocktail of formic acid, histamine, acetylcholine and serotonin, and that is what causes the bobbly swelling and itchy skin we suffer when we brush up against it.

However, that is nothing compared to the effects some more exotic nettles have at their disposal.

On the island of Timor in south-east Asia, one species of nettle causes lockjaw and a painful burning sensation, both of which can last for days or weeks.

Elsewhere, a native species on the Indonesian island of Java produces similar, but more potent results that can last for months and have even caused the death of some of victims.

6. Natural archaeologists

Nettles will grow just about anywhere, but they prefer rich soils and benefiting from the waste humans produce. In this way, the presence of large collections of nettles in the wild can sometimes indicate where settlements once existed. The site may not longer be visible on the surface, but the nutrients in the rich soil still provide the perfect conditions for the nettles.

7. Nettles as medicine

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Nettles have traditionally been used for medicinal purposes by many cultures.

Native Americans used the fresh leaves to treat aches and pains. European herbalists used the leaves in a similar fashion to treat gout and arthritis. Also, with the plant dried out to neutralize the acid in the sting, the leaves become a natural anti-histamine and have can help with asthma.

Some of these uses are now being scientifically tested, with some surprising results. Nettles are now sometimes prescribed for certain allergies and arthritic conditions as well as some diseases of the prostate. 

8. Nettles help struggling football team

In December 2002, Howard Wilkinson was managing Sunderland in the English Premier League. They were doing terribly in the league – deep in the relegation zone – and faced a home game against Liverpool, who were themselves in poor form but still overwhelming favourites for the game.

In 2003 the following appeared in the Sunday Times newspaper, wirtten by Louise Taylor:

“Mick McCarthy will be hard pressed to devise team talks as imaginative as Howard Wilkinson’s. Before Sunderland played Liverpool last December, McCarthy’s predecessor arrived in the home dressing room carrying a bag of nettles. First Wilkinson demonstrated that squeezing the plants slowly in his palm stung painfully. Then he grasped the nettles swiftly and firmly, before explaining that this approach hurt less.

The point was to warn his players that Liverpool would aim to lull Sunderland into complacency before stinging them on the counter-attack; a tactic that could be negated by curtailing such breaks at source. On that occasion a 2-1 victory – only one of two in 20 premiership games during Wilkinson’s reign – resulted.”

9. The gardener’s friend

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While many green fingered folk see the nettle as nothing more than a weed, they can actually provide gardeners with a vital tool to protect their plants.

Ladybirds call the nettles home as they grow and develop, protecting and sustaining the young bugs from predators. In turn, when the ladybird reach maturity, the venture further into the garden, searching for the aphids they love to eat, helping to stop them munching through the gardener’s precious plants.

10. Nettles keep fruit fresh

The leaves of nettle plants can, when used to pack fruit, help to keep it fresh and ripe, stifling and stopping mould from forming. Nettles are good at protecting fellow plants in general, warding fungal infections and diseases off other nearby plants.

Their high nitrogen content can be used in compost, fuelling the bacteria to help them break down material more effectively and quickly. 

Click here to learn how to make easy nettle soup.

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