Dear Readers, I have a great fondness for dead-nettles, and have written about many of them: there’s white dead-nettle, red dead-nettle and hedge woundwort, black horehound and yellow archangel, bugle, self-heal and ground-ivy. They are called dead-nettles because their leaves have a superficial resemblance to those of stinging nettles, but they don’t cause any skin irritation, and are much loved by pollinators. So, I always have my eyes open for a new species, and was much pleased to find this common hemp-nettle (Galeopsis tetrahit) with its pale pink flowers positively exploding out. This plant is less common than those on my list above, and is usually found in disturbed ground around arable fields, exactly where I spotted these plants in Dorset. I love the whorls of calyxes where the flowers have emerged and left a kind of vegetative sea-urchin shape.
This is a native plant, described as ‘common’, so I wonder how often I’ve passed it by. Like all members of the dead-nettle family it’s much favoured by bumblebees, giving it it’s alternative name of ‘bee nettle’. Like many members of the Lamiaceae it can be difficult to identify (in a previous post I’ve already named it as ‘henbit deadnettle’, which it clearly isn’t), but Plantlife mentions that the stem in this species is swollen just where the leafstalks begin, which isn’t clear in the photos but I do remember from the actual plant. It also hybridises with the bifid hemp-nettle (Galeopsis bifida) which doesn’t help, and it may well be a natural hybrid between the downy hemp-nettle (Galeopsis pubescens) and the large-flowered hemp-nettle (Galeopsis speciosia). There’s a much better photo of the flower below, but bear in mind it can also be pink, as mine were.
According to the Flora of the USSR (a 25 volume work by V.L. Kamorov and referenced by the Plants for a Future website), Common hemp-nettle is poisonous, but I find this a little surprising, as most of the rest of the family are known as herbs. Don’t take any chances though, peeps. The Glossary of Indian Medical Plants (also referenced by Plants for a Future) mentions that the plant is used for the treatment of tissue-wasting and pulmonary complaints.
An oil from the seeds has been used as a polish for leather, and apparently fibre from the stems can be used to make cord (hence the ‘hemp-nettle’ designation).
I can’t find any human edible uses for the plant, which rather backs up the idea that it might be poisonous, but marsh and coal tits are said to be partial to the seeds.
Apparently the genus name ‘Galeopsis‘ means ‘weasel-like’, probably a reference to the shape of the flower which could resemble a weasel’s snout if you squint. The ‘tetrahit‘ species name probably refers to the pattern of four leaves around the stem, though I can’t find an exact equivalent.
And finally, a poem. As you might expect, a search for ‘common hemp-nettle poem’ comes up with nothing. But wait! Here’s a poem by Louise Glück, which mentions the way that many dead-nettles are plants of damp, dark places (including our plant, which was growing in a very shady lane). The mention of the silver leaves makes me think of the garden variety of yellow archangel. See what you think.
Lamium by Louise Glück
This is how you live when you have a cold heart.
As I do: in shadows, trailing over cool rock,
under the great maple trees.
The sun hardly touches me.
Sometimes I see it in early spring, rising very far away.
Then leaves grow over it, completely hiding it. I feel it
glinting through the leaves, erratic,
like someone hitting the side of a glass with a metal spoon.
Living things don’t all require
light in the same degree. Some of us
make our own light: a silver leaf
like a path no one can use, a shallow
lake of silver in the darkness under the great maples.
But you know this already.
You and the others who think
you live for truth, and, by extension, love
all that is cold.
Photo One by CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=125208