by Ian Brand

Wharfedale Naturalists Society

WHEN I was a young medical student, I soon realised everyone had a story to tell. It was often the older members of society whose tales were the most interesting.

Likewise with plants; they all have interesting stories, and it is usually the common and ordinary that are the most fascinating.

What could be more common or ordinary than the UK’s commonest flowering plant, the Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica)?

My favourite botanist, David Bellamy (1933-2019) once famously said “it is not called Urtica because it ‘urts”. Urtica comes from the Latin urtriculus meaning small bladder or sac. This well describes the urticarial nettle rash with its small lumps or hives. The stinging hairs or trichomes are not just there to annoy gardeners and walkers, but as a protection from grazing herbivores. They are like miniature hypodermic needles with a sharp silica tip which snaps off as it pierces the skin, discharging its fluid-filled sac containing a biochemical cocktail of irritants.

The specific name, dioica comes from the Latin dioecious, meaning two houses, with plants either totally male or female, like Holly and Yew trees. The stinging nettles have tiny, wind-pollinated flowers, crowded together into catkin-like inflorescences. Each male flower bud contains four tightly packed stamens, which spring out, releasing pollen when the bud opens. Much of the pollen in the air in mid-summer comes from stinging nettles. The female flowers have feather-like stigmas which trap the airborne pollen grains, allowing fertilisation to take place and seed to be set.

Stinging nettles have long been associated with man as a botanical camp follower, with their love of a phosphate-rich habitat. I think every garden should find room for a small patch of nettles, the larval food of the Peacock, Red Admiral and Small Tortoiseshell butterflies. Why not also experiment, picking the plants when young to make a tasty soup, pesto or as alternative to spinach.

Nettles have many other uses including the production of cloth by our ancestors, similar to flax and hemp. In more recent times, the German army uniforms were made from nettle fibre during World War I due to the shortage of cotton, and nettle jeans have recently appeared on the catwalks of Milan and London, as an alternative to environmentally damaging cotton.

Common plants are often over looked, sadly much like older members of our society. We should cherish both; they have wonderful stories to tell.