They are one of the most recognised plants of the British countryside, and with good reason. The stinging nettle, with it’s jagged leaves, is an incredibly important plant for dozens of species of insects, including some of our most loved butterflies species. Yet this green plant holds a nasty surprise for anyone who looks too closely, for it is in covered in hundreds of tiny stings.
The painful stinging sensation that you feel when you touch a nettle is one we all remember from childhood. It is caused by dozens of hairs that cover the plant’s stem and leaves. These hairs are small and sharp enough to be able to pierce human skin on impact. Once this happens formic acid from within the hair is injected into the skin, just as a needle would. This acid causes irritation and pain that is not too dissimilar to a bee sting. Applying aesthetic cream to the sting will help to lessen the effects and thankfully the sting is only temporary. Over the years, people have developed different theories of what can cure a nettle sting – when I was young I was told chocolate was the best cure! Although this is not true it did take the pain away.
The reason this plant has such a powerful sting is for defence. Across Britain there are literally millions of animals, from deer to cows, that, given the chance, will eat the nettle. By covering itself in stings, herbivores will be deterred from eating the leaves and leave the plant alone. The fact that the sting does little other than mildly irritate is also very important. The nettle does not want to seriously harm the herbivore, more teach it a lesson. After eating a nettle leaf, a young rabbit for example, will learn not to eat nettles again and may even pass this trait onto the next generation.
As a result, nettles are often left well alone by everyone, making them perfect places for insects, such as the peacock butterfly, to lay their eggs. This makes the nettle a very important part of the ecosystem, so having just a small patch at the bottom of the garden is a perfect way of supplying shelter and food for the rest of your garden’s wildlife.
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Take care, and stay on the wild side.