Monthly Archives: February 2017

Feed The Birds

Starlings getting stuck in to the suet pellets

Starlings getting stuck in to the suet pellets

Dear Readers, last week my friend J and are were in the bird food aisle at our local garden centre. How confusing it all is! There is food for finches, food for robins, food for sparrows and food for tits. I didn’t notice any food for pigeons or squirrels, so maybe I am the only person in the world who is happy to have them come to visit. What did strike me was how cynical a lot of this is, and how much money people might spend to keep all their avian charges happy. Don’t do this, people! Let me share with you the food that I normally have available in the garden, and who benefits from each kind.

Sunflower hearts

Sunflower hearts

Firstly, seeds. Cheap seed is full of filler and husks. The birds don’t mind it, but probably half to two-thirds of it goes to waste. It’s worth paying out for the best seed that you can afford. My preference (or rather the birds preference) is for sunflower hearts. These are eye-wateringly expensive, but are taken by all the finches, the woodpigeons, the collared doves and the house sparrows. And also the squirrels, of course. I hope you’ll enjoy this short film, taken during Storm Doris yesterday.

Woodpigeon and collared doves getting stuck into the sunflower hearts. The squirrels pull out the plastic feeding rings, hence the duct tape.

Woodpigeon and collared doves getting stuck into the sunflower hearts. The squirrels pull out the plastic feeding rings, hence the duct tape.

Female chaffinch on seed feeder

Female chaffinch on seed feeder

House Sparrow and Goldfinch on seed feeder

House Sparrow and Goldfinch on seed feeder



My second food is whole peanuts, but only from August through to the end of January – there is evidence that if fed to baby birds, the nuts can choke them. If I have peanuts, I can watch the acrobatics of the squirrels, but even more delightfully, I can expect visits from the jays. How the word gets round that the nuts are out, I have no idea, but there we go.

RSPB's buggy nibbles. Other suet nibbles are available :-)

RSPB’s buggy nibbles. Other suet nibbles are available 🙂

My third food is some form of suet, normally suet pellets. RSPB do a nifty variety called buggy nibbles, which apparently contain the remains of insects as well. The starlings adore this stuff, and many of the other birds will also take it, particularly the blue, great and coal tits that are regular visitors, and the long-tailed tits that occasionally breeze past. Another seasonal visitor is the greater spotted woodpecker who hammers away at the suet feeder like Michelangelo wielding a chisel. If I put it on my ground feeder or makeshift bird-table everyone eats it – the blackbirds, the woodpigeons and the collared doves. The foxes will also pop by once in a while for a feed, as, unfortunately, do several cats. I suppose that suet is animal fat, after all.

Starling waiting for a go at the suet pellets. The blue bit at the base of the bill tells us that this bird is a male

Starling waiting for a go at the suet pellets. The blue bit at the base of the bill tells us that this bird is a male

I love the way that the blue tit holds the suet pellet in his foot while he eats it

I love the way that the blue tit holds the suet pellet in his foot while he eats it



The next foods are ‘optional extras’, because I have no children and so can afford to indulge my garden visitors, who will not need supported through university and rarely require nappies. I normally have some dried mealworms, which I scatter on the garden for the robin and dunnock, and mix with the suet. If you really want to see some spectacular ‘bird action’ you could try live mealworms, which you can buy from one of my favourite companies, Wiggly-Wigglers. I have stopped using them because I couldn’t bear to send all those little wrigglers to their deaths, which is just pure hypocrisy because I seem to be able to overcome my moral doubts when they’re already dead. Some people recommend that the dry ones are soaked in water first, which might be a good idea in the breeding season. They are the number one most loved food in the garden and last for about twenty minutes.

Bird granola, believe it or not.

Bird granola, believe it or not.

And lastly, I’m currently feeding something that the RSPB have developed called ‘Bird Granola’. It’s a mixture of suet, seeds and mealworms, and the birds have gone crazy for it. Like all suet products (including the buggy nibbles mentioned previously) it can dry to a solid lump if it gets wet, and can also turn a patio into a skating rink.

Female blackbird picking up the crumbs from the birdtable

Female blackbird picking up the crumbs from the birdtable

I also feed things like leftover grated cheese (beloved by the wrens), chopped apples and pears that are past their best (on the ground or bird table, for the blackbirds and any other thrushes that pop in), leftover cake (no icing) and things like rice if it hasn’t been salted. I had good results with some stuff called Flutter Butter (again from Wiggly Wigglers) – you get a jar of ‘peanut butter’ that you can hang up, and which is very popular with the tits. Normal nut butters are too salty for birds, however.

Robin picking over the leftovers

Robin picking over the leftovers

There are also things that I never bother with.

  • Nyjer seed. Yes, I know that it’s supposed to be the thing that the finches love, but in my garden they much prefer the sunflower seeds
  • Anything in a net – birds get horribly injured when they get tangled up in the mesh. I do sometimes put out suet balls, but always in a proper feeder
  • Bread (not much nutritional value generally)

I honestly think that you could get away with putting out sunflower seeds, suet pellets and some chopped apples/grated cheese, and get a very fine range of species if everything else is in place. And what is everything else?

Female chaffinch drinking from the pond

Female chaffinch drinking from the pond

Female blackbird by the pond

Female blackbird by the pond

Water – I have the pond (as you know) but I also have a bird bath. It’s surprising how much the birds like to bathe, particularly in winter.

Woodpigeon in the whitebeam tree

Woodpigeon in the whitebeam tree

Blue tit in the lilac

Blue tit in the lilac

Somewhere close to the feeders for the birds to perch. I’m lucky (or lazy) because my garden is fairly overgrown, but birds do like to grab something from a feeder or bird table and then retreat to safety. This is worth thinking about when you position your feeding station or table – the spot needs to be open enough so that next door’s cat can’t hide close by, but close enough that the birds don’t feel exposed to airborne predators liked sparrowhawks. I think that  little birds in particular are very attuned to the presence of birds of prey, and they are much commoner than you’d think – I once looked out of my kitchen door and found a sparrowhawk eating a pigeon on the step outside.

Fluffed-up starling

Fluffed-up starling

This is, of course, a very personal view: the birds that visit the garden will depend on where you live, and how urban (or otherwise) your area is. My garden is suburban, twenty minutes from central London by tube, but it benefits from having two scraps of ancient woodland and a huge Victorian cemetery nearby. My parent’s bird feeder at their home in Dorset is monopolised delightfully by the house sparrows who make their nests in their ten-foot tall beech hedge. My friend J was recently visited by a pair of parakeets. I am visited by lots of chaffinches, who are rarely seen in the garden of my friend A, who only lives around the corner. And if you live in the US or Canada or Australia, your guests will be very different. But there is something in many of us that derives great pleasure from helping our feathered neighbours. For me, it’s a small thing that I can put back – we have taken so much in terms of habitat for nesting and opportunities for feeding with the growth of our cities and the intensification of our agriculture. And whose heart doesn’t lift when a flock of long-tailed tits drop by in a chorus of contact calls, or a jay descends on the birdtable in a flash of blue? These moments can give us an instant of wonder and a surge of connection with the world around us.

Maybe it isn’t surprising that the song ‘Feed the Birds’ from Mary Poppins always leaves me with a lump in my throat. It’s sentimental, sugary-sweet, and these days any old lady selling bird food on the steps of St Pauls would be hauled off for a night in the cells. And yet I still find myself wiping away a surreptitious tear. See what you think.

‘Feed the Birds’ from Mary Poppins

All blog content copyright Vivienne Palmer. Free to use and share non-commercially, but please attribute and link back to the blog, thank you!


Wednesday Weed – Hart’s Tongue Fern

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…..

Hart's Tongue Fern (Asplenium scolopendrium)

Hart’s Tongue Fern (Asplenium scolopendrium)

Dear Readers, during a walk along through the lanes of Somerset a few weeks ago I was amazed by how subtropical the hedgerows looked. Everywhere the long, green leaves of hart’s tongue fern were decorating the path, bringing a welcome touch of shiny emerald enthusiasm to the otherwise browning foliage.  A field of snowdrops didn’t go amiss, either.

img_9553The hart’s tongue fern is a member of the Asplenium or spleenwort family, a group of over 700 mostly tropical species. This fern is the only UK species with long, strap-like leaves, which become wavy at the edges as the plant grows older – the name ‘hart’s tongue’ refers to their similarity (in shape though not, we hope, in colour) to the tongue of a young red deer stag. The plant likes shallow soil and is often found growing among the roots of trees and bushes, or in cracks in walls. You can also buy it from many garden centres, and a healthy specimen is a most attractive plant, though they do become rather dog-eared in time (as do most of us).

Hart’s tongue fern is a common plant in the UK, especially in the south-west of England which is where I found this colony. It is native plant of the northern hemisphere, but is rare in the US, occurring in isolated populations, with the American subspecies being classified as Endangered (at least until the current government de-lists it along with all the other lifeforms covered by the Endangered Species Act, but that’s another story).

By Linda Swartz -, Public Domain,

The rare American hart’s tongue fern (Asplenium scolopendrium v. americanum) Photo One (see credit below)

Why spleenwort, though? Well, as we remember from our discussion of the male fern a few weeks ago, ferns do not produce seeds, or indeed flowers, but instead produce spores. Those of the hart’s tongue fern are very distinctive, producing rows of chocolate-coloured spores on the underside of the leaves, which are shed between August and March. In the photo below, the spores have already gone, but the marks of the sporangia that would have contained them are very clear. The whole ensemble puts me in mind of those lime-flavoured sweets with chocolate filling that I used to munch as a child, but maybe I’m just sugar-deprived. Anyhow, the shape of the sporangia reminded medieval peoples of the shape of the spleen, which indicated to them that the plant was good for treating ailments of this organ via the Doctrine of Signatures (already discussed several times, such as in this piece on nipplewort)

Apparently the lines of dark brown reminded whoever named the plant of a centipede, as scolopendrium is the Latin name of this invertebrate.

The spores of the hart's tongue fern.

The empty sporangia of the hart’s tongue fern.

According to A Modern Herbal, hart’s tongue fern is useful for liver diseases of all kinds, and for hardness and stoppings of the spleen. The herbalist Culpepper mentions that

‘The distilled water is very good against the passion of the heart, to stay hiccough, to help the falling of the palate and to stay bleeding of the gums by gargling with it’.

Many years before Culpepper, Galen gave it in infusion for dysentery and diarrhoea, and in country areas in the UK it was used in an ointment for burns and scalds.

img_9561One rather lovely story about hart’s tongue fern explains one of its alternative names, godshaer. The story tells that, during his wanderings, Jesus become tired, and lay down beside a stream, resting his head on a pillow of hart’s tongue fern. When, refreshed, he awoke and moved on, he left two of his hairs embedded in the plant and, if you break the stipe (the rib in the middle of the leaf) you will find two black ‘hairs’ (actually vascular bundles). If only I had known this story when I was in Somerset I would have given this a go, so feel free to investigate if you pass a plant in your travels (though do apologise to the poor fern first).

img_9564The Ainu people of Japan mix hart’s tongue fern with tobacco and smoke it. And the physicians of Myddfai in Wales recommended it particularly for women:

“If you would always be chaste, eat daily some of the herb called hart’s tongue, and you will never assent to the suggestions of impurity.”

Well, harrumph to that. At my age I need all the suggestions of impurity that I can get. But I digress.

img_9555And finally, does anyone eat this plant? In North America, young ferns known as fiddleheads are a great delicacy. However, some ferns contain carcinogens, or substances that cause Vitamin B1 deficiency, so this eating ferns is not an activity for the reckless. However, our old friend Robin over at the Eat Weeds website has gone where the brave fear to tread, and his recipe for Buttered Hart’s Tongue Fiddleheads is here.

img_9561When I talked about male fern in a previous Wednesday Weed, I mentioned a craze in Victorian times for collecting ferns, called pteridomania. I am very glad that I wasn’t born during this period, for I imagine that you couldn’t walk around a drawing room without sweeping a glass dome full of ailing ferns off of a side table with your bustle. Furthermore, even if you were working-class there was always some Victorian gentleman artist at his easel,  capturing your slightly grubby, poverty-stricken beauty as you tried to go about your work. So here, for your delectation, is The Fern Gatherer by Charles Sillem Lidderdale (1831- 1895). Is that a tiny hart’s tongue fern grasped in the over-worked hand of this maiden? I do believe it is.

By Charles Sillem Lidderdale - Bonhams, Public Domain,

The Fern Gatherer by Charles Sillem Lidderdale (1831 – 1895) (Photo Two – credit below)

Photo Credits

Photo One (American hart’s tongue fern) – By Linda Swartz –, Public Domain,

Photo Two (The Fern Gatherer) – By Charles Sillem Lidderdale – Bonhams, Public Domain,

All other blog content copyright Vivienne Palmer. Free to use and share non-commercially, but please attribute and link back to the blog, thank you.







To have a garden is to be regularly reminded about death. As I was clearing away the stalks of hemp agrimony last spring, I found the frail, headless corpse of a male blackbird, its decapitation a strong indication that it had been brought down by a sparrowhawk. It weighed heavily in my hand, for I knew this particular bird.

img_9584 At twilight he would cling on to next door’s rooftop television aerial and and pour out his mellifluous song, the notes trickling down like honey. Later, there might be some kind of upset in the bushes, and his maniacal alarm call would set off everybody else. But he was also subtle. I once walked past him in semi-darkness as he sat in the lilac bush, and heard him making a soft ticking call, like a feathered clock. Apparently this call is used to deter other males from roosting in the blackbird’s territory overnight, but it sounded to me as if he was trying to comfort himself, like a lone child whistling in the dark.

And then, after his death, there was a year without blackbirds and darkness fell without serenade. But this year, they are back, in force.

Young male blackbird (Turdus merula)

Young male blackbird (Turdus merula)

There is at least one adult male, a female, and a young male. The young males have a charcoal black and dark brown livery in their first year, and this chap is regularly seen off by the adult male. But the youngster is determined, and I often see him sitting in the whitebeam tree, shuffling his feathers and looking around anxiously. Although blackbirds are ostensibly monogamous, and mate for life, a study has shown that up to 17% of offspring are not fathered by the female’s partner, so maybe the youngster is just waiting for his chance.

Adult male blackbird

Adult male blackbird

The garden is the adult male’s territory, and in the morning I often see him picking over the patio, or throwing leaves aside in a search for little insects and other titbits. His beak is as orange-yellow as a crocus, and this colour is thought to be an indication of dominance and health: in experiments, male blackbirds react more strongly to orange beaks than to yellow ones, and are largely indifferent to the black bills of first year males. Someone should tell my blackbird that he’s meant to leave the young guys alone.  At any rate, only his mate is tolerated: as soon as he sees another blackbird, the male bows, fluffs himself out, sometimes lets out a semi-hysterical cackling war cry and flies directly at the offending bird. He seems to spend a large proportion of his time in this way. I hope he has the energy left for child-rearing later in the year.

By Huhu Uet (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Female blackbird (Photo One – credit below)

I wonder about the female, too. Blackbirds mate for life, but it could be that she has taken up with this dashing gallant following the death of her previous partner. On the other hand, as blackbirds try to hold the same territory for life, and I saw no blackbirds at all for a year after the death of the male, this could be a completely new pair. The female spends a lot of her time feeding at the moment – egg-laying and chick-rearing is highly expensive in terms of energy, and she’ll need every morsel she can find. Plus, she builds the nest by herself, sometimes in thick undergrowth, sometimes in a shed, sometimes in the most unlikely places, such as a pair of unloved wellington boots or, as I once saw on Orkney, in the radiator grille of an abandoned car. They sometimes seem a bit clueless in the spots that they choose, and many, many nests fail due to predation. Mind you, round here you’d need a gun emplacement and barbed wire to keep the cats out, so any chicks that get to the fledging stage are doing well. Blackbirds apparently have different alarm calls for cats ( a ‘chook-chook-chook’ call) and for aerial predators like the sparrowhawk (a ‘seeeee’ call which is difficult to locate).

The last three crab apples just about to disappear....

The last three crab apples just about to disappear….

Blackbirds are ground feeders – I occasionally see the male perched cockily on my bird table, but they can’t manage the other feeders. They do love berries, however, and work their way through the haws and the hips with great enthusiasm. As I was watching today, the male ate the last of the crab apples, but these are not favourites: sweet and juicy fruit is much preferred, not just by blackbirds but by most thrushes. I once put out some grated apple for a fieldfare who had been downed during a snowstorm, and it was much appreciated. I often throw out apples and pears that are past their best – once they’re all brown and bruised they’re ideal thrush food.

By Downloaded from Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by EuTuga., Public Domain,

‘Sing a Song of Sixpence’ cover (Photo Two – credit below)

Blackbirds are woven into our childhoods and our folklore. Take the popular nursery rhyme ‘Sing a song of sixpence’, for example:

‘Sing a song of sixpence,

A pocketful of rye,

Four and twenty blackbirds

Baked in a pie.

When the pie was opened,

The birds began to sing

Wasn’t this a dainty dish

To set before a king?’

Because blackbirds were (and still are) so common, they would have been a handy addition to the diet in hard times, but the pie here sounds like a more extravagant affair. Just as married couples sometimes release doves or butterflies at their nuptials, so there was a fashion for slapping a pie crust on top of some cowering birds so that they would burst forth when the lid was cut. I only hope that the blackbirds made their way towards the sky and escaped.

Incidentally, the ‘four calling birds’ of The Twelve Days of Christmas probably refers to ‘Colly (Coaly) birds’, i.e. blackbirds.

img_9584Last night, I stood by the window as dusk fell and the fading sunlight turned all the bricks of East Finchley rose-red. And there, back on the television aerial, was the blackbird, vibrating with song. Listening to him, all my worries fell away. I was reminded of Edward Thomas’s poem, Adlestrop:

‘And for that minute a blackbird sang

Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds

Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire’

A flock of starlings rolled overhead, on their way to their roost in one of the big plane trees on the High Road, and the last twitterings of a charm of goldfinches faded into silence. And I thought about blackbirds, and their short, unremarked lives, and the struggles, both human and animal, that surround us everyday. But also the joy. We must never forget the joy.

Photo Credits

Photo One (Female Blackbird) – By Huhu Uet (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Two (Nursery Rhyme Cover) – By Downloaded from Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by EuTuga., Public Domain,

All other blog content copyright Vivienne Palmer. Free to use and share non-commercially, but please attribute and link back to the blog, thank you!

Wednesday Weed – Stinging Nettle (Part Three)

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…..

img_9523Dear Readers, you might think that something as full of poisonous barbs as a stinging nettle would be a most unlikely choice for turning into fabric. But in fact, the plant’s stems are used to produced bast fibre – this is the inner layer of the stem of the plant, and it produces a flexible material suitable for turning into cloth. This is also the part of the flax and hemp plants that are used for fabrics. In stinging nettles, it has the great advantage of not reducing the wearer to a mass of boils.

By derivative work: Curtis Clark (talk)Labeledstemforposter_copy.jpg: Ryan R. McKenzie - Labeledstemforposter_copy.jpg, Public Domain,

In this diagram, the area labelled ‘BF’ is the part of the stem that is used for producing textiles (Photo One – credit below)

In order to get to the bast fibre layer, however, the plant has to go through a process called retting (another great new word for my collection). Bundles of nettle stems are submerged in water for between 8 and 14 days, during which time the plant absorbs water, bursting the outer layer and making the bast fibre easy to extract. The time needs to be judged carefully, however: if submerged for too long you end up with an extremely useful but smelly fertiliser, rich in nitrogen, magnesium, iron and sulphur and great for encouraging leafy growth.

Once the fibre has been extracted, the textiles can be created. People have been wearing nettle clothes for at least 2000 years, and why not – the plants grow everywhere with very little encouragement or the use of pesticides, and they make a decent replacement for cotton or linen. Indeed, during the First World War, German uniforms were made from nettles following a cotton shortage.

In Scotland, nettles were used for bed sheets and tablecloths. Sue Eland’s Plantllives website has an extensive section on stinging nettle, and reports how the Scottish poet Thomas Campbell (1777-1844) describes the use of the fabric:

‘I have slept in nettle sheets, and dined offa nettle tablecloth, and I have heard my mother say that she thought nettle cloth more durable than any other linen.’

More recently, a number of experiments have been done into the use of nettles for clothing: De Montfort University has created some rather pretty dresses, but my chief question here is how on earth do they stay up? Or on? Clearly they weren’t designed by a woman. But I digress, as usual. There is also a bright pink nettle bikini worn by a lady in boots, but I shall spare you. Enough to say that nettle fabric is due for a comeback, and indeed many companies are already interested in producing it.

Nettle leaves can be used to produce a greenish-yellow dye, and the roots produce a yellow one. Truly this plant is a generous one.

Nettle dresses created by De Montfort University. (Photo Two -credit below)

As you might expect for a plant with such polarising qualities, there is a huge volume of folklore concerning nettles. Stinging nettle was one of the Nine Sacred Herbs of the Anglo-Saxons, which was believed to ward off evil. It was also one of the five bitter herbs that are eaten by Jewish people during the Feast of Passover.

In Yorkshire the plant was used in exorcism ceremonies. Frogs could be kept from beehives (I had no idea that this was a problem) and flies from larders by hanging up a bunch of the plant. A child’s eyesight could be improved if you blew through a leaf into the affected eye. Fever could be cured if a nettle (preferably growing in a shady area) was grasped and uprooted whilst intoning the name of the patient and their parents – a kind of trial by ordeal, where the suffering of the person who went through the ritual was used to benefit the sick person.

img_9524The stinging properties of nettles were also used in the treatment of ailments such as rheumatism, the counter-irritant properties of the blisters and the heat produced being seen as a way to alleviate the symptoms.

In Buddhism, the yogi Milarepa reached enlightenment while living in a Himalayan cave and subsisting on a diet of nettle soup, which turned his skin green. At one point he was offered meat, but when he saw that some of it was being consumed by maggots, he understood that it was not fair to deprive the insects of their food, and went back to the nettles. After many trials, he became an influential and revered Buddhist teacher, and if you want to read about his long and eventful life, you can find the full story here.

“Maintain the state of undistractedness and distractions will fly off.
Dwell alone and you shall find a friend.
Take the lowest place and you shall reach the highest.
Hasten slowly and you will soon arrive.
Renounce all worldly goals and you shall reach the highest goal.”

By Sarah Lionheart, CC BY 2.5,

Statue of Milarepa from the Helambu Valley of Nepal (Photo Three – credit below)

And so, our tour of stinging nettles has taken us from an alley in East Finchley to the mountains of the Himalayas. I can think of few plants that have been as useful to us, but also as reviled. For some, the nettle has been food, medicine, clothes and a source of inspiration. For others, it’s a spiteful and pernicious perennial weed, to be rooted out at all costs. F.Scott Fitzgerald once said that ‘The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function‘, and this is often so true of our relationships with the natural world. Stinging nettles sting, but may also treat rheumatism. They love to grow in our gardens, but provide a home for peacock butterflies. No person is perfectly good, or perfectly bad, and yet we still manage to love one another, and it’s the same with the plants and animals that we share our world with. Let us make some room for the nettle, as we hope that others will make room for us, prickly and astringent as we may be.

Photo Credits

Photo One (nettle stem) – By derivative work: Curtis Clark (talk)Labeledstemforposter_copy.jpg: Ryan R. McKenzie – Labeledstemforposter_copy.jpg, Public Domain,

Photo Two (Nettle dress) –

Photo Three (Milarepa) – By Sarah Lionheart, CC BY 2.5,




The Story of a Cold

By No machine-readable author provided. Robin S assumed (based on copyright claims). - No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY-SA 3.0,

A rhinovirus, or common cold virus. The dark areas are protein spikes, which help the virus to adhere to and penetrate cells. (Photo One – see credit below)

Dear Readers, this week I have been suffering from a rather pernicious head cold, which has laid me low and prevented me from exploring my half-mile territory. A commonplace experience (the average adult will suffer from two to four colds every year), but it got me thinking. What causes a cold? How do our typical symptoms (sore throat, runny nose, raised temperature, sneezing) relate to the infection? And what, if anything, can we do to prevent the disease, and to treat it once we have it? I am full of questions, and have tried to find some answers. If you are a doctor, a virologist, a nurse or indeed anyone who can add to my knowledge of this fascinating subject (which is pretty much everybody), please feel free to chip in.

To start at the beginning: colds are caused viruses. A virus is not technically ‘alive’ – some scientists think of them as being on the edge of life – because they fail two crucial tests  – they are not made up of cells, and they do not perform many of the key requirements of life, such as respiration, digestion or excretion.  When a virus is outside of a host, it is known as a virion, and is made up of only two or three elements – a strand of genetic material (DNA or RNA) and a layer of protein that protects it (known as the capsid). Some viruses also have a layer of lipid (fat) on top of the capsid. Viruses are tiny – an average virus is only one-hundredth the size of a bacteria – and it wasn’t until the age of the electron microscope that we began to understand their myriad forms.

By Deposition authors: Gutsche, I., Desfosses, A., Effantin, G., Ling, W.L., Haupt, M., Ruigrok, R.W.H., Sachse, C., Schoehn, G.;visualization author: User:Astrojan -, CC BY 4.0,

The measles virus (Photo Two – credit below)

Ebola Virus (Photo Three – credit below)

The main virus that causes the common cold is a kind of rhinovirus (rhino meaning ‘nose’, as in rhinoceros (‘nose horn’)). 99 varieties of rhinovirus have been identified so far, and they share an icosahedral (twenty-faceted) shape. They are tiny viruses, just one tenth of the size of a smallpox virus. The best temperature for them to reproduce is about ten degrees colder than human body temperature, which may be one reason why they generally set up operations in the nose – the constant flow of cold air keeps this part of the body colder than others. Plus, it might also explain why colds seem to be commoner in the winter, and after people have become chilled.  But this is not the whole story.

Colds are spread by sneezing, coughing and contaminated surfaces . And from September onwards, when children go back to school, any parent will be under siege from the many diseases of their little ones. With their under-developed immune systems, children catch up to 8 colds per year, and I suspect it sometimes feels as if it’s just one long bout of sniffling. If you travel on public transport you are bombarded with other people’s explosive sneezes and hacking coughs. Plus in winter we huddle together indoors and contaminate one another.  Really, it’s a wonder that any of us make it through to the summer without a cold.

Incidentally, the virus moves fast: it can start its work of adhering to our cells within 15 minutes of entering our nose, and over 50% of individuals who encounter the virus will be thoroughly infected within two days.

By Hillary

One way through a cold is to cuddle it – toy common cold viruses (Photo Four – Credit Below) The viruses are made by Giant Microbes, who have a wide range of neurons, bacteria and viruses for sale

But what happens when we are infected with a virus? A virus’s sole aim in life is to reproduce, and to do that it needs your cells. The virus bonds with a cell, using the proteins on its capsid to infiltrate the cell membrane. Once in, it hijacks the cell’s genetic material, and produces many copies of itself. Eventually, the cell lyses (explodes) and all the new viruses are thrown into the body, to go hunting for more cells to damage. However, a cell sends out distress signals to our immune system using chemicals called cytokines and chemokines. The first response is inflammation, which explains why the first thing that I usually know about an infection is a sore throat.

An embroidery of the common cold virus showing the proteins about to latch onto a cell. Lovely work from Hey Paul Studios (Photo Five – credit below)

Other symptoms of a cold are also caused not by the virus itself, but by our body’s response to the infection. Take fever, for example.The role of fever in illness is controversial, but one school of thought suggests that a rise in temperature (triggered by those cytokines) speeds up some of the body’s protective chemical reactions. In the case of a cold, we can also see how the rhinoviruses would be inconvenienced by having the body temperature go up.You could argue that by taking drugs that reduce your fever, you are prolonging the duration of the cold. However, some of us are in a position to lay about and recover naturally, and some of us have to drag ourselves off to work or risk losing our jobs or letting people down, so taking the Night or Day Nurse medication is basically down to pragmatic concerns.

By James Gathany - CDC Public Health Image library ID 11162, Public Domain,

Look at those aerosol droplets go !Photo Six (credit below)

Similarly, colds produce a very unpleasant runny nose, again due to the inflammation caused as a response to the virus by the cytokines – our noses produce mucus to sooth the damage, as I can testify. Couple this with sneezing (a response to the irritation caused by the inflammation) and we have a perfect system for spreading the cold virus. A typical sneeze can produce 40,000 droplets, each one full of happy virions looking for a new home. The advice these days is to sneeze into your elbow if you can manage the manoeuvre in time. Certainly, sneezing into your hand is a great way of spreading it to your fellow commuters or classmates, as the virus can survive outside the human body for three days in the correct conditions. It’s a good reason for washing your hands after travelling, and for trying to make sure that you don’t rub your eyes, bite your nails or suck your thumb.

By, Public Domain,

Poster on the cost of the common cold from World War Two (Photo Seven – see credit below)

The common cold has been with us forever, I suspect: the first recorded mention of the disease is in the Eber papyrus, the very first ‘medical textbook’ which was written in  ancient Egypt. However, what we can do about it remains uncertain. Prevention of the infection by handwashing is important, but the jury is out on Vitamin C, echinacea, and garlic. Some of you may be old enough to remember the Common Cold Unit, which was set up to investigate the disease in 1946. It was possible to go for a ‘holiday’, all expenses paid, the price being your infection with a common cold virus. It finally shut in 1989, and the only therapy that proved at all efficacious in reducing the duration and severity of symptoms was the use of zinc gluconate lozenges, so this might be worth trying if you feel a cold coming on. For me, it’s all about drinking lots of hot fluids, resting as much as my work schedule will allow, and keeping lots of tissues on hand. Most of us now recognise that going to the doctors is a waste of time and only exposes ourselves and other people to further infection. Fortunately the medical profession, in the UK at least, is much less likely to give out antibiotics for a viral infection than it was in previous decades, which will hopefully help to reduce the growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

There are, however, situations when a cold can lead to something much worse. In the very young, the very elderly or those who are immunocompromised, a cold can be a harbinger of pneumonia, as in the rather chilling poster below. For most of us, a cold is a minor inconvenience, but for others it can be devastating. This is one reason why I never visit my parents if I have a streaming cold – for people with COPD or other respiratory problems, the last thing they need is to be infected with my rhinoviruses. Prevention really is better than cure.

By WPA artist "G S Jr" - Via, Public Domain,

A poster from 1937, advising those with colds to visit their doctors (Photo Eight – credit below)

Photo Credits

Photo One (Rhinovirus) – By No machine-readable author provided. Robin S assumed (based on copyright claims). – No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Two (Measles virus) – By Deposition authors: Gutsche, I., Desfosses, A., Effantin, G., Ling, W.L., Haupt, M., Ruigrok, R.W.H., Sachse, C., Schoehn, G.;visualization author: User:Astrojan –, CC BY 4.0,

Photo Three (Ebola virus) – by CDC Global

Photo Four (Toy Cold Viruses) – Photo by Hillary

Photo Five (Embroidery of Common Cold Virus) –

Photo Six (Sneeze) – By James Gathany – CDC Public Health Image library ID 11162, Public Domain,

Photo Seven (Cost of the common cold) – By, Public Domain,

Photo Eight(Shark poster) – By WPA artist “G S Jr” – Via, Public Domain,

All blog content copyright Vivienne Palmer. Free to use and share non-commercially, but please attribute and link back to the blog, thank you!


Wednesday Weed – Stinging Nettle (Part Two)

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…..

Stinging Nettle (Urtica diocia)

Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica)

Dear Readers, last week I looked at the ‘sting’ part of the stinging nettle. However, this is a plant which has been our constant companion for as long as we have lived in these islands, and not surprisingly we have found a myriad ways in which it could help us.

As foraging has been become more popular, so nettle recipes have proliferated. The consensus seems to be that the new tips of the plant should be harvested in March and April, before they set seed and become stringy and unpleasant. In fact, elderly nettles contain gritty particles called ‘cystoliths’ which can irritate the bladder, so refrain from collecting nettles of pensionable age.  No less a luminary than Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is a great fan of nettles as food, and you can find the instructions for making nettle soup, nettle spanakopita (though technically a spanakopita made of wild plants is called a horopita) and nettle risotto here. T.Tseng

Stinging nettle papardelle with mixed mushroom ragu, egg and pea shoots (Photo One – credit below)

Indeed, stinging nettles have become such a trendy ingredient that they’re finding their way into everything from pasta to pesto, from borek to polenta. Some of these uses are traditional recipes which are being rediscovered: others are new inventions, using nettles in place of more expensive cultivated greens. And with good reason: as noted last week, nettles are very high in Vitamin A and C, and in minerals such as potassum and manganese. They also contain 25% protein (dry weight) which is high for a leafy vegetable.

Plunging nettles into boiling water neutralises their sting, and makes them edible. However, in Dorset there is an annual World Nettle Eating Competition, held in June when the nettles are at their stingiest. It started when two farmers got into an argument about whose fields had the most nettles, and decided that one way to settle the issue was to eat them. The competitors (and numbers are limited to 65) have to eat the leaves from 24 inch-long stalks of nettle. The bare stalks are measured, and the winner is the person with the longest accumulated length. I can only imagine the state of the participants’ lips and throats. There has been some talk, in recent years, of some shady goings-on, with low toxicity nettle being substituted for the local plant. When The Telegraph covered the event, back in 2009, the winners of the men and women’s competitions (for, to my dismay, I find that women are not immune to this madness) both managed to consume the leaves from 48 feet of nettles. The mind fairly boggles. And if you want to see a film of the 2012 event, there is some on the Bottle Inn website here. There is not yet a date for the 2017 competition, but if you are keen to enter (and cannot be dissuaded) you’d better get practising now. The Bottle Inn sounds as if it might be worth a visit at any time, actually: it’s has a 16th Century building, and has won CAMRA West Dorset Pub of the Year in 2014 and 2016. I did wonder if nettles would form part of its menu, but sadly there aren’t any details online.

 © Copyright RNE and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

The Bottle Inn at Marshwood, home of the World Nettle-Eating Championships (Photo Two – see credit below)

Humans are not the only animals who consume nettles. You might remember the little green chap who was curled up on the nettle from last week. I suspect that s/he is the caterpillar of an Angle Shades moth, which is a most exquisite creature.

Angle Shades moth caterpillar (Phlogophora meticulosa)

Angle Shades moth caterpillar (Phlogophora meticulosa)

By ©entomart, Attribution,

Angle Shades moth (Photo Three – see credit below)

Nettles are also the preferred food plant of some of the Vanessid butterflies, such as the peacock and the red admiral. In the case of the peacock (Aglais io), the pale-green eggs are laid on the underside of the nettle leaves. I love the delicate structure of the eggs – they look like tiny gooseberries.

By W. Schön -, CC BY-SA 3.0 de,

Peacock butterfly eggs (Photo Four- credit below)

The black spiky caterpillars emerge and build communal webs. If a hungry blue tit hoves into view, the tiny caterpillars wave and jerk their bodies back and forth in unison, which must give pause to any hungry predator.

By aconcagua (talk) - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Peacock butterfly caterpillars (Photo Five – see below)

Incidentally, it is said that a sudden flash of the eyespots on a peacock butterfly’s wings is enough to deter an animal as big as a hungry chicken. It can also produce a distinct hissing sound by rubbiing its wings together. It might float like a butterfly, but it can certainly defend itself.

By Charlesjsharp - Own work, from Sharp Photography, sharpphotography, CC BY-SA 3.0,

All grown up! (Photo Seven- credit below)

The red admiral (Vanessa atalanta) is another butterfly whose caterpillars feed almost solely on nettles. This migrant insect (which is found all over North America, Asia and Europe) lays its eggs singly on the leaves, so this makes them easy to distinguish from the peacock eggs.

By Emmanuel Boutet - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Red admiral eggs (Photo Six – see credit below)

The caterpillars make ‘tents’ out of the individual nettle leaves, sewing them around themselves as protection, and moving to bigger leaves as they grow. I will never forget my distress when my favourite patch of nettles in the local community garden, full of red admiral caterpillars, was strimmed to the ground by an over-zealous volunteer. Our urge to keep things tidy can be a real threat to wildlife, especially invertebrates. Fortunately, there is rarely a shortage of nettles in these parts, and long may this continue.

James Lindsey at Ecology of Commanster [CC BY-SA 2.5 ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Red admiral caterpillars (Photo Seven – see credit below)

The wings of adult red admirals remind me of brown velvet. What handsome insects they are!

HaarFager at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Adult red admiral (Photo Eight – see credit below)

Well, dear readers,  I am starting to realise that even two weeks might not be enough to cover the wondrous stinging nettle. The plant has a long and illustrious history as a medicinal plant, and has also been used to make cloth, plus I haven’t even started on folklore, so I think these attributes are deserving of a third post. But here are some thoughts on the character of this plant, and what I think it teaches us. Nettle has to be handled with knowledge and respect in order to glean its gifts – the unwary will find themselves heartily stung. It makes the most of our damp and unloved places, proving that it’s possible to make something of whatever we are given. And its sting protects not only the plant itself, but the many small creatures that feed upon it, showing how fierceness can be used for good purposes. These are lessons that we need to absorb at the moment: how to be wise, how to be resilient and creative, how to channel our anger for the protection of others. Stinging nettle might be common, but it has an uncommon resonance.

img_9516Photo Credits

Photo One (Papardelle) – by T.Tseng

Photo Two (The Bottle Inn) – © Copyright RNE and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Photo Three (Angle Shades) – By ©entomart, Attribution,

Photo Four (Peacock Butterfly Eggs) – By W. Schön –, CC BY-SA 3.0 de,

Photo Five (Peacock Butterfly Caterpillars) – By aconcagua (talk) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Five (Peacock Butterfly Adult) – By Charlesjsharp – Own work, from Sharp Photography, sharpphotography, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Six (Red Admiral Eggs) – By Emmanuel Boutet – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Seven (Red Admiral Caterpillars) – James Lindsey at Ecology of Commanster [CC BY-SA 2.5 ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Eight (Adult Red Admiral) – HaarFager at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons





Bugwoman’s Third Annual Report

IMG_5397Dear Readers, what a year it’s been! It started in February 2016 with a rather disappointing revisit to the Abraham Cruzvillegas installation at Tate Modern, which contained soil from different sites in London, and was supposed to provide an idea of the diverse flora from the capital. Sadly, it was rather underlit, and none of the raised beds were labelled, so it was impossible to know where each sample of soil had come from. Plus it finished in February, just before everything started to come into flower! A most frustrating exercise which could have been both artistically and scientifically interesting. Harrumph!  It did provide an excuse for a bracing walk along the Thames, however.

IMG_5528March was all about frogs and this poor little fox, half eaten up with mange. It was the start of my daily walk to St Pancras and Islington Cemetery, where I dropped medicated food to try and clear up the fox’s skin problem. As a result I met a group of people dedicated to looking after the cat population in the cemetery, and the other animals too, especially my friend B. To my surprise, the homeopathic medication sent from the National Fox Welfare Society worked, and I gained many glimpses of the foxy population.

The fox with mange

The fox with mange

The first frogs of the year

The first frog of the year

Fox at sunset

Fox at sunset

By April there was some improvement in the original fox, and she had a mate. Plus, from looking at her underside, it seemed that she had cubs, though I didn’t see them while they were very small.

The vixen (looking a bit better I think)

The vixen (looking a bit better I think)


The dog fox waiting for his dinner

The dog fox waiting for his dinner

Yet another fox

Yet another fox

On the Wednesday Weed front, I found some honesty

IMG_5987and some fritillaries.

IMG_6003May brought comfrey and lady’s smock, and a few more foxes


Lady's Smock (Cardamine pratensis)

Lady’s Smock (Cardamine pratensis)


The vixen and the dog fox earlier this week

The vixen and the dog fox – the vixen definitely looks as if she’s feeding cubs

And by June, I think this is the first sight of a cub. Plus, we had fledgling long-tailed tits, and a rather surprising creature spotted while on the New River Walk in Islington

IMG_7158IMG_6662 IMG_6639IMG_6793In July, I was off to Austria for our annual two weeks in the Alps. Where it snowed.

IMG_7258Though not all the time, fortunately….

IMG_7221August saw my first visit to Woodberry Wetlands and a trip back to my roots in the East End, to see what had happened to Stratford since the Olympic Games. I was impressed with the wildlife that I saw in both places.  And the fox cubs were out and about in the cemetery.

Woodberry Wetlands

Woodberry Wetlands


Heron and Mute Swan at Woodberry Wetlands

Young goldfinch at the Olympic Park

Young goldfinch at the Olympic Park

Kestrel at the Olympic Park

Kestrel at the Olympic Park

Another young fox

Another young fox in the cemetery

September saw my first ever pied flycatcher, during a visit to see my parents in Milborne St Andrew, Dorset.

img_8010I had never seen so many rose hips as there were in the cemetery, either.

img_7989And the horse chestnuts reminded me of my Auntie Mary. How often the fruits of the season jog my memory, putting me in mind of people and places long gone.

img_7954And the foxes were still about, of course.

Dog Fox

Dog Fox

October brought a trip to Venice with an 89 year-old friend of mine, and a particularly wonderful encounter with a young vixen in the cemetery.

img_8087img_8066img_8314img_8247In November, I discovered the joys of a slow shutter-speed on my camera, and had an encounter with a grey wagtail at the Barbican Centre.

img_8613-2 img_8615-2

Grey Wagtail

Grey Wagtail

December brought a return to Milborne St Andrew, some very fine Islington cats, and a supermoon. It also introduced me to the hidden meaning of having pampas grass in your front garden.

Ice on a Dorset stream

Ice on a Dorset stream

A very fine Islington cat

A very fine Islington cat



Supermoon apparently tangled in branches

Supermoon apparently tangled in branches

Pampas grass

Pampas grass

And finally, January has brought a stroll along the Mutton Brook in East Finchley, stinging nettles and a Very Fine Cat Indeed.

The Mutton Brook

The Mutton Brook

Stinging nettles with small 'friend'

Stinging nettles with small ‘friend’

Bailey, the world's most magnificent cat.

Bailey, the world’s most magnificent cat.

So, dear Readers, what an exciting year it’s been! If there are things that you’ve liked particularly, do let me know (and yes I will be spending more time in the cemetery on fox watch in the months to come). I am also open to suggestions if I have missed your favourite ‘weed’, or if there is somewhere in London that you’d like me to take an excursion to.  In the meantime, thank you so much for your support, and I look forward to your company in 2017. The world is an uncomfortable place for many people at the moment (including me) and there is much solace to be gained in the plants and animals that surround us.

All blog content copyright Vivienne Palmer. Free to use and share non-commercially, but please attribute and link back to the blog, thank you.







Wednesday Weed – Stinging Nettle (Part One)

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…..

Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica)

Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica) with what I think is an Angle Shades moth caterpillar  (of which more next week)

Dear Readers, I can scarcely believe that I have never featured stinging nettle on The Wednesday Weed , but it seems that it is so. Maybe I have been deterred by the sheer amount that there is to say about this most ubiquitous of ‘weeds’, which has featured in so many of our stories and which has been utilised by us in so many ways. In fact, there is so much to say that, for the first time ever, I am going to feature stinging nettle in two posts, with the second one being published next Wednesday. This week, I am going to concentrate on the thing that makes the nettle most memorable: it’s ability to sting.

img_9544It is actually quite unusual for plants to be as fierce in their defence as the stinging nettle is. I vividly recall my first encounter: my Dad had taken over a neglected allotment in Manor Park, East London, close to the towering gas holders. The whole family descended on it one sunny afternoon to clear the waist-high weeds. I grasped a handful of an innocuous looking plant, and felt it stab the palm of my hand. Even as I watched, great blisters came up on my wrists and inner arms. Dad stopped to see what all the wailing was about, and then grabbed a handful of dock leaves and crushed them onto the affected parts. It didn’t quite make it stop hurting, but it was definitely better afterwards, for perfectly valid scientific reasons which are described below.

Today, I was double-checking the foliage of my ‘nettle patch’ to make sure that it was stinging nettle, and so I have a couple of stings on my fingers. They are tingling even as I write. Maybe they will make my prose even more deathless than usual. Well, I can hope.

The little hypodermics of stinging nettle

The little hypodermics of stinging nettle

The leaves and stem of a stinging nettle arecovered in hairs, some of which sting and some of which do not. When the stinging hairs come into contact with something (like a human hand, for example), the ‘cap’ of the hair is broken off, and the sharp point that remains injects chemicals into the skin.

By Peter coxhead - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Diagram of a stinging nettle hair (Photo One – credit below)

The mixture of ingredients includes a histamine, acetylcholine ( a neurotransmitter), and possibly formic acid. Treatment with an anti-histamine cream will help to alleviate the symptoms,but I find to my delight that dock leaves contain a natural anti-histamine which does the same job. I don’t know about you, but I find that as I get older, the effect of a nettle sting seems to last for longer, and I’m often still a bit tingly and sore several days after a nettle encounter. However, for me nettles are a quintessential part of a day out in the country: they gather under every stile, spring out from every woodland path and hide among the most innocent of greenery. The cry of ‘stinging nettle, mind your arms’ as we trooped through Wanstead Park as small children was as much part of my childhood as orange and lemon cupcakes and spam hedgehogs (mashed potato covered in spammy ‘spikes’ with tomato ketchup for eyes).

Incidentally, all that business about ‘grasping the nettle’ has never worked for me. I know the theory – that being firm with a nettle means that the stinging hairs will be forced to lay down flat against the stem and so pain will be prevented – but I’ve never known a nettle that had read this piece of folklore. Stroke them or grab them, they’ve always behaved just as uncouthly. A thick pair of gardening gloves and long sleeves work for me, though these nettles will happily sting through cotton and even thin summer trousers.

img_9526You might think that big animals like deer and cows would not be deterred by a little thing like a sting, but apparently they are. Although they are covered in fur, the lips and tongue of such animals are tender, and they are no fans of getting them covered in hives. So, the theory is that nettles developed their stings to stop themselves from being eaten. Apparently stinging nettles which grow in areas frequented by livestock develop a higher proportion of stinging hairs than those which are not constantly under threat of grazing. The production of such defences must be metabolically expensive for the plant, which is probably why not many species do it. However, the armoury of our stinging nettle pales into insignificance compared to some of its relatives.

By Cgoodwin - Own work, CC BY 3.0,

Stinging Tree (also known as a Gympie Gympie tree) (Dendrocnide moroides) (Photo Two – see credit below)









The Stinging Tree or Gympie Gympie (Dendrocnide moroides) of Queensland in Australia has a famously long-lasting and potent sting, and is a member of the nettle family. Here is the testimony of a chap named Ernie Rider, who was slapped in the face and torso by the plant back in 1963:

“For two or three days the pain was almost unbearable; I couldn’t work or sleep, then it was pretty bad pain for another fortnight or so. The stinging persisted for two years and recurred every time I had a cold shower. … There’s nothing to rival it; it’s ten times worse than anything else.”

I must remember this next time I’m complaining about a nettle sting.

The English language has even developed a verb, ‘to nettle’, meaning ‘to irritate or harass’.

img_9529The relationship between human habitation and stinging nettles is not accidental. Nettles have a fondness for soil with high levels of phosphate and nitrogen, and so they often indicate spots where humans or animals have urinated or defecated. I think it’s no accident that the finest crop of nettles on the unadopted road in East Finchley is on the corner, a spot where I am willing to bet many chaps have stopped off on their way home from the pub for a wee. It’s said that the outline of Scottish crofts which have otherwise completely disappeared can still be identified by the stinging nettles that grow where the outhouses and middens would have stood, two hundred years after the infamous Highland Clearances took place.

img_9528Just a few words here on the sex-life of the nettle. As you might guess from the species name dioica,  nettles are dioecious, which means that some  nettles have male flowers and some have female flowers. The male flowers often have a purplish tinge at some point in their development and are held quite stiffly away from the plant. They have been described as looking like tiny Brussel sprouts.

By John Tann from Sydney, Australia (Stinging Nettle) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Stinging Nettle (Male Flowers) – Photo Three (see credit below)

By Frank Vincentz - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Close up of male stinging nettle flowers. Notice the four white anthers. Photo Four (see credit below)

The female flowers are in long, drooping catkins, and in full bloom are said to look as if they are covered in hoar-frost.

By Frank Vincentz - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Female nettle flowers (Photo Five – credit below)

For some excellent photos of male and female nettles, have a look at The Wildflower Finder website.

The purpose of having separate male and female plants is, as usual, to ensure genetic diversity, by making sure that an individual plant can’t pollinate itself. The inconspicuous and plentiful flowers, and their lack of strong colour and scent, is an indication that this is a wind-pollinated plant, and indeed the pollen has been implicated in hay fever and other allergies. However, it is also used by some practitioners as a powerful anti-allergy agent. As we will see next week, stinging nettle has been used by humans in many ways: medicinally, as food, for clothing and as feed for domestic animals. It is also a critical food for many insects, including some of our most exquisite butterflies. But I would like to finish here with a poem that reflects our uneasy relationship with this plant. Vernon Scannell was a soldier during World War 2, and his poem ‘Nettles’ sums up the very human frustration with the natural world’s refusal to bow to our requirements.

Nettles by Vernon Scannell

My son aged three fell in the nettle bed.
‘Bed’ seemed a curious name for those green spears,
That regiment of spite behind the shed:
It was no place for rest. With sobs and tears
The boy came seeking comfort and I saw
White blisters beaded on his tender skin.
We soothed him till his pain was not so raw.
At last he offered us a watery grin,
And then I took my hook and honed the blade
And went outside and slashed in fury with it
Till not a nettle in that fierce parade
Stood upright any more. Next task: I lit
A funeral pyre to burn the fallen dead.
But in two weeks the busy sun and rain
Had called up tall recruits behind the shed:
My son would often feel sharp wounds again.

Photo Credits

Photo One (diagram of nettle hair) – By Peter coxhead – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Two (Gympie Gympie Tree) By Cgoodwin – Own work, CC BY 3.0,

Photo Three (Stinging Nettle with male flowers) – By John Tann from Sydney, Australia (Stinging Nettle) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)]

Photo Four (Male Flowers) – By Frank Vincentz – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Five (Female Flowers) – By Frank Vincentz – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Vernon Scannell Poem taken from

All other blog content copyright Vivienne Palmer. Free to use and share non-commercially, but please attribute and link back to the blog, thank you!