Thursday, 29 October 2009

In praise of nettles ~

Planting the tomatoes was a much faster, simpler job than getting the beans in, and I was pleased to have done it but it was finding the nettle seedlings that was really exciting - I thought they'd all evaporated! There are quite a few and hopefully more will follow. These are the small variety of nettle - Urtica urens, not the much bigger variety which in New Zealand is referred to as Perennial Nettle. The latter is classed a notifiable pest in Otago as well as in a number of other regions due to it's invasive tendencies. The smaller one represents no such threat.

When I mention this enthusiasm I usually get two responses which follow each other in quick succession, the first being "You what...?" or similar, then "But they sting! People are allergic to them". This is true, they certainly do sting, and yes, some people do have an allergic reaction, but nettles are a lot easier to handle than the average rose, which draws no similar complaint, and people can be allergic to many things, even foods that are of great benefit to others, such as eggs and nuts! The sting doesn't bother me much. I usually cover my skin and wear gardening gloves so it's seldom a problem, and if I do get 'stung' I pretend to ignore it as I'm such a fan.

The reason nettles are so special is because they are the host plant of larval caterpillars of Admiral butterflies. They seem to eat little or nothing else. In New Zealand we have the Yellow and the Red Admiral.
Here is a Yellow one inspecting my nettles last summer:


And of course, once the butterflies hatch they need nectar to feed on. The hebe is a favourite. There are two butterflies in this image. See if you can find the second one!


Butterflies, along with bees, are major pollinators and vital in our production of fruit and vegetables. Without them we could be very hungry indeed. Sadly, butterflies and moths are in decline around the world. Part of the reason seems to be loss of habitat as well as the extensive use of chemical horticultural sprays. The following two websites mention this. In the first one David Attenborough launches a campaign to address this alarming issue, in which he is supported by David Bellamy. The second is more general.

While I was looking for background information I was pleased to find this article by Kennedy Harris, a fellow nettle and butterfly enthusiast.
Having a clump of nettles in the garden is one way in which I contribute to the world conservation effort. It's easy and free, and watching the caterpillars and butterflies is a happy occupation. Not all of them make it to adulthood of course, but some of them do, and with them the cycle of renewal continues.

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