Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..
In East Finchley, all the Red Dead-nettle plants seem to have come into bloom at exactly the same time. Where last week there was just a clump of leaves, this week there are those tiny magenta-pink flowers, each one a complicated combination of long throat (corolla) and upper and lower lip. They seem designed to encourage a foraging bee to take a sip of nectar, with a handy landing-platform provided by the lower lip, and the stamen poised to gently tap the insect on the back, as if administering a blessing. It is also a source of pollen, especially for Queen bumblebees who are looking for food for their new offspring. This is reflected in the name given to the plant in Nottinghamshire and Lancashire – ‘Bumblebee flower’.
However, like many plants, Red Dead-nettle is not dependent on bees to reproduce. It can self-pollinate if times are hard, and ants have been observed dispersing the seeds by carrying them into their nests as food, where some of them will germinate before being eaten. A quick look at the Garden Organic website tells me that a single Red Dead-nettle can produce 27,634 viable seeds if there isn’t any competition from other plants. Such abundance! This is not surprising, as unlike its close relative White Dead-nettle, which is a perennial, Red Dead-nettle is an annual, and so has only one chance to pass on its genes. As with many things in nature, it’s lucky that not every seed or egg is able to reach adulthood or we’d soon be buried under a positive carpet of furry leaves and pink flowers.
Red Dead-nettles are plants of disturbed soils, but they are not tolerant of trampling, so they often crop up just at the edge of footpaths or other open spaces. Although it is native to continental Europe, it is thought to have been brought to the UK during the Bronze Age – remains of the plant have been found in deposits of wheat and barley from this period. It has since travelled widely with its human compatriots, and is hence found in North America and New Zealand too. Unlike many ‘weeds’ however, this is not an especially vigorous plant, and so it is not generally considered to be a problem. In addition to its value to pollinators, it is also useful for humans: the leaves and flowers can be eaten as a salad vegetable, and if you want to experience the delights of Dead-nettle and Chilli Soup or, indeed, Dead-nettle Beer, you can have a look here.
As we have seen before, the medicinal uses of plants often depend on their appearance, and Red Dead-nettle is no exception. Because of its colour, Nicholas Culpeper, the fifteenth century herbalist, considered it efficacious for any problems relating to the blood, especially menstrual problems. It’s also believed that the crushed leaves will help to staunch blood flow, which is useful if you are ever unlucky enough to walk through a particularly vengeful bramble patch en route to your destination. I also note that it is sometimes used as a treatment for piles, although Lesser Celandine is more commonly referred to as the ‘go-to’ plant for such afflictions. Beware, however: Red Dead-nettle also has a reputation as a laxative, and, whilst browsing through the various ‘wild food’ websites on the internet I noticed several people referring to cramps and diarrhoea. So, the word here, as everywhere, is caution. On the other hand, if you have a pet tortoise, Red Dead-nettle seems to be a fine food for them.
Sometimes, it’s possible to find a more unusual flower tucked in amongst the Red Dead-nettle. This is the Cut-Leaved Dead-nettle (Lamium hybridum). Described as ‘easily overlooked’, you can see why. The main difference between this plant and Red Dead-nettle is that, as you might expect from the name, the leaves are less rounded and more deeply toothed.Red Dead-nettle is also has an angelic alternative name – Purple Archangel. It is argued that this is because the plant comes into flower around the time of the feast of the Archangel Michael, which is on 8th May. However, the plants that I saw today are obviously having a bit of calendar trouble if this is the case. Maybe there is something about the flowers which looks a little ethereal and heaven-bound. For the bumblebees, at least, they are manna.