You can’t have summer without stinging nettles. Who hasn’t fallen, or been pushed, face first into a nettle patch at least once in their lives. Poor little Rambling Ratz was quite dwarfed by these mighty hedges of nettles at Credenhill Wood.
But, I hear you cry, what is the point of them? Well they come under the same category as wasps – annoying, painful, yet necessary. The sting comes from the hairs on the stems and leaves. These detach from the plant as you brush past – or plummet face down into them – releasing a cocktail of chemicals including histamine and formic acid amongst others too difficult to spell. The result is that the affected area takes on the look and feel of lumpy porridge and an itch that causes the victim to run about shrieking “find me a dock leaf, NOW!” Incidentally, any relief brought about by rubbing the affected part with a saliva soaked dock leaf is probably more to do with the rubbing action stimulating nerves that distract the pain signals.
I have rambled on about how horrible nettles are, when I am supposed to be explaining how useful they are, tsk tsk. The fibres make a fabric similar to cotton. During the First World War, German army uniforms were 85% nettle fibre; in the Second World War the British used nettles to make green dye for their camouflage; it makes a good dandruff shampoo; people used to thrash themselves with nettles to alleviate Rheumatism and the Romans did it to warm themselves up when they invaded chilly old Britain. Ingesting nettles is said to induce labour and help lactation. It has been used as a tea or infusion to treat rhinitis, digestive upsets, urinary problems, scurvy, poisoning and ironically is said to be good for stings. Hippocrates recorded 61 herbal remedies involving nettles.
Nettles also provide food for butterflies, moths and aphids which in turn provide food for ladybirds and bird birds.
Sadly, this post is too late to celebrate Be Nice to Nettles Week, that was back in May. Bah, and it’s too late for the Nettle Eating Competition held in July at the Bottle Inn. I haven’t been there myself, Rambling Ratz is teetotal, but for our friends outside of the UK it looks to be the very epitome of an English country pub and I note that it welcomes ramblers, “Huzzah!” Yes indeed British people compete with each other to see who can eat the most nettles, and you thought those Romans were weird.
Thanks again, for the illustration, to the dear departed Prof. Dr. Otto Wilhelm Thomé, who’s 1885 book in German can be accessed here.
Incidentally Rambling Ratz does not endorse doing anything with nettles other than tiptoeing gingerly past them with hands thrust deep into pockets and trousers tucked into socks.