Nettles

A grey-purple stem stands solid in the cool breeze, connected leaves fluttering.  Overhead, the sun darts behind a cloud, then peeks out, half hiding like a shy child behind his mother’s legs.

The leaves of the Nettle are elongated hearts, cut with pinking shears.  Even it’s hearts wear teeth.

I can just about see the stingers, fine hairs that look soft, but experience tells me they are deceptive.  They are the sharp pins from the same sewing kit that held the shears.

As I sit with the Nettle, the air brustles around us and it seems to wave to me.  Or is it pushing me away?  It feels like it’s leaves are frantically ushering me to go.  

I heed it’s advice and scurry inside, out the wind, but shortly after I wonder, should I have stayed?  Was it pushing me away as a self-protective measure?  An extension of the boundaries the stings set?   I wonder if I should have stayed, earnt it’s trust, pushed through the harsh outer layers? 

And I wonder, what would I have found under it’s tough armour?

A nursery for caterpillars?  A buffet for insectivores?  An all-inclusive resort for bugs?

Or all of the above.

Butterflies and moths lay their eggs on the Nettle’s leaves; Small Tortoiseshell Butterflies, Peacock Butterflies and Burnished Brass Moths.

Once hatched, the caterpillars feed on the leaves as they grow, protected from predators whilst they make their magical transformation.

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Carrot Flies, Black Flies and Aphids eat the Nettle, then in turn, they become food for Ladybirds, Blue Tits and other birds.

It’s thought that more than 40 kinds of insect shelter on and around the Nettle, enjoying protection from grazing animals.  These insects in turn draw insectivores such as Hedgehogs, Shrews, Frogs and Toads, turning a nettle patch into a food court.

It’s flowers offer pollen and nectar for butterflies and the seeds offer autumn food for Chaffinches, Bullfinches and House Sparrows.

The nettle is also home to Jumping Plant Lice, Tarnished Plant Bugs and more.  These creatures are not put off by the Nettle’s sting, they welcome it, they embrace it.  They see beyond the defensive bristling, the measures the Nettle employs in order to avoid being vulnerable.  Where so many others see malice, they see potential.

***

A day later and I pull a few of the more unwieldly plants from my patch of ground.  I would rather I tamed them gently and sparingly than the council tried, with brutal force and unrefined machinery. 

Despite two pairs of gloves and knowledge of how to approach a nettle, I still get stung.  A grey pin prick amongst the whorls and swirls of my fingertip. 

When the tiny hypodermic needle brushed against me, the tip broke off and the remaining hair pierced my skin, injecting an elegant cocktail of irritants.  This included histamine which I am especially sensitive to, and is likely why my one single nettle sting was still throbbing and swollen hours later.

I can’t think of another plant whose identity is so wrapped up in it’s sting, in it’s self-defence.  Other plant protections are utilised, taken for human use – whether it’s the nicotine that protects the Tobacco plant or salicylic acid produced when herbivores bite Willow or the Cinchona trees which use the bitter taste of quinine to repel predators.

***

There is an old belief that a nettle in your pocket will keep you safe from lightning and give you courage.  Perhaps this is a self fulfilling prophecy, not everyone would pick the nettle in the first place…

Or, perhaps it is the gift that comes from knowing the Nettle.  Of knowing there is more to a book that it’s cover, more to a nettle than it’s sting.  Of knowing the Nettle is more about protection than defence.

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