I am an amateur naturalist trying to learn a little about all the life in my garden.
In a quiet corner of my garden (at (1.8,2.0) - see here) I have been carefully cultivating (hem, hem) a patch of stinging nettles Urtica dioica (photo's 1 and 2 - click to enlarge).
I have two books in my possession that have enabled me to learn something about this ubiquitous British weed: my trusty copy of The Englishman's Flora (Geoffrey Grigson, Paladin) and secondly a recently acquired copy of Insects on Nettles (B.N.K. Davis, Richmond Publishing).
From Geoffrey Grigson's book I learn alternative names for the stinging nettle include The Devil's Leaf in Somerset and Naughty Man's Plaything (!) in Sussex. Secondly that nettles were unintentionally imported into the States by the settlers, with John Josselyn recording in 1672
"[nettles] have sprung up since the English planted and kept cattle in New England"
and thirdly that the Scots poet Thomas Campbell (1777-1844) wrote about sleeping in sheets made from the fibres of nettle stems (I would love to think there is someone out there reading this blog who still has a set of nettle bedsheets. If you're that slumberer do please leave a comment!)
From Dr.Davis' book I am learn that the botanical name dioica is derived from the Greek di-oikos -"two houses" - a reference to the fact that nettles have separate male and female plants which can be differentiated by the flowers: bright yellow on male plants and "silvery, furry" on females. Nettles clearly have a dubious reputation as a weed; Seen under the microscope however I have to say I find the flowers really rather beautiful. Photo 3 shows my 40x closeup of what I assume to be a female plant.
Nettle leaves are edible after suitable cooking (blanching in boiling water for example) and I can report that I myself have eaten nettle risotto from my garden's crop: my memory is of it tasting vaguely like a cross between watercress and spinach.
Of course, the unpleasantly familiar attribute of nettles is their sting. Photo 4 shows my (100x) image of one of the vicious hypodermic syringes responsible. It seems there is some dispute over exactly what chemical is to blame for the painful sting with hystamines, formic acid and oxalic acids all being variously implicated. Hope is at hand however: From Dr. Davis' fascinating book above I learn that one nettle variant (var. subinermis) common in Cambridgeshire lacks stinging hairs.
Nettles get a mention by Shakespeare no fewer than nine times, my favourite being
"the strawberry grows best underneath the nettle,
and wholesome berries thrive and ripen best
Neighboured by fruit of baser quality" (Henry V, Act 1)
Does anyone know if there is any truth in this suggestion that strawberries grow well in the proximity of nettles?
And finally, for all of us who've suffered the stings of nettles. I learn that things could be much worse: from Wikipedia's entry on nettles I learn that Urtica ferox, a dioica relative native to New Zealand, has a sting powerful enough to kill a horse! Can anyone out there report living to tell the tale of having been stung by this terrible triffid?