Monday, November 12, 2007

Stinging nettle Urtica dioica

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?


Crypto said...

I always think of Shakespeare's reference to nettles in Ophelia's garland which brings to mind the image of the painting by Arthur Hughes in the Manchester Art Gallery (see - far superior to the chocolate box painting of Ophelia by Millais. This is an image of a distraught girl; not one who has fallen asleep in the bath.

Wings1 said...

Greetings from New Zealand, Love your website.

I have Urtica Ferox, the New Zealand tree nettle that you talk about in your blog that killed a horse. It has also killed a hunter, and can kill dogs that happen upon it.

It does have a painfull sting, but only deadly if you got alot around your chest.

When you get a sting on your hand, it can last for days and feels numb, but when you touch it feels like a needle is being pushed in!

I breed nettles for the Admiral butterflies that use them as a host plant. I have 5 differnet species and get stung often, rubbing dock leaves onto it reduces that sting.

Also a note on the bedsheets, I have seen cotton made from nettle and it is beautifull, I think even softer than cotton. try to google it.

Henry Walloon said...

Thanks to both of you.

Crypto - I agree, the painting is superb.

Wings1 - thanks so much for answering my questions. I'm delighted to know that the practice of making nettle cotton is alive and well and will web serach it as you suggest.

jv said...

I was wondering whether i could use your photos of the Urtica dioica for a 2 page monograph I am doing as part of a short course on botany and botanical medicine at Westminster University - the close up in particular is great. I would, of course name you as photographer but I couldn't afford to pay I am afraid.
Thanks - I hope the answer is yes

Donovan said...

Learning about all the life in the garden sounds interesting. We can get new knowledge from it. I'll do same thing like you, learning the life around us.