15 June 2008

Be Nice to Nettles

Wildside – our regular look at the non-human residents of SE23

Next time you're tidying up the garden, spare a thought for the humble nettle. It may be a weed with an unpleasant sting, but it's a vital part of our ecosystem which is why it's actively encouraged at the Devonshire Road Nature Reserve.

Some of our favourite butterflies - Comma, Red Admiral, Peacock and Small Tortoiseshell - and several moths use the nettle as food for their larvae.

Nettles are the only British plant with true stinging cells formed of silica-rich "hairs" which fracture on contact with your skin. They then release a complex, chemical toxin. There's a very good evolutionary reason for this sophisticated defence mechanism; young nettle leafs are highly nutritious and need to protect themselves from hungry grazers.

But, if you're prepared to take a few precautions, nettles are very edible and, of course, they don't sting once they're boiled. In fact, the leaves are rich in iron and calcium. Nettle pudding was recently claimed to be Britain's oldest recipe dating from 6000 BC.

Traditionally, nettles have mainly been used in soups in springtime although nettle risotto is also very good (NB - nettles can cause indigestion in some people and you should only use the young leaves).

These days, there is interest in the nettles' pharmacological properties and there is research currently into the use of nettles as an anti-inflammatory in the treatment of arthritis.

National Be Nice to Nettles Week takes place every year in May so check out www.nettles.org.uk for details. And if your appetite for stinging nettles has been whetted, there is a pub in Dorset (The Bottle Inn) which runs an annual World Nettle Eating Competition which this year takes place on June 21st.

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