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…..
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.The wings of adult red admirals remind me of brown velvet. What handsome insects they are! 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.
Photo One (Papardelle) – by T.Tseng https://www.flickr.com/photos/68147320@N02/11043367595
Photo Three (Angle Shades) – By ©entomart, Attribution, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=311443
Photo Four (Peacock Butterfly Eggs) – By W. Schön – http://www.bund-nrw-naturschutzstiftung.de/schmetterling2009.htm, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5654101
Photo Five (Peacock Butterfly Caterpillars) – By aconcagua (talk) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27736513
Photo Five (Peacock Butterfly Adult) – By Charlesjsharp – Own work, from Sharp Photography, sharpphotography, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32422546
Photo Six (Red Admiral Eggs) – By Emmanuel Boutet – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1393559
Photo Seven (Red Admiral Caterpillars) – James Lindsey at Ecology of Commanster [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo Eight (Adult Red Admiral) – HaarFager at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons