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Be Nice to Nettles

26 May 2006

The common nettle, Urtica dioica is celebrated in Nettle Day on Saturday 27 May at the Museum.

The common nettle, Urtica dioica is celebrated in Nettle Day on Saturday 27 May at the Natural History Museum.

There is more to nettles than just their sting. Butterflies love them, clothes are made from them, and they can even cure aches and pains.

This week (17-28 May) is national Be Nice to Nettles Week and this Saturday 27 May the Natural History Museum is celebrating with a Nettle Day. You can take part in a range of talks, activities, tuck into nettle-based food or even buy nettle gifts.

Food, medicine and clothes

The common nettle, Urtica dioica , has received a bad name because of its irritating sting and reputation as a weed. But in the past, its role has been much more favourable.

Before the late 1900s, the nettle was used as a food, for clothing and for medicine. Nettles have been eaten for centuries and the young shoots can be used in delicious soups and stews like spinach. A fine fibre can be made from nettles and then spun and woven into a cloth.

Some of the many medical properties nettles have been used for include treatment for aches and pains, gout and arthritis and as a natural anti-asthmatic and anti-histamine treatment.

The famous sting and remedy dock leaf

The sting of the nettle is actually very similar to the structure of a hypodermic needle - it is a hollow stiff hair with a swollen base containing the venom. The tip of the hair is very brittle and easily breaks off if brushed against, exposing a sharp point that penetrates the skin and delivers its sting.

Dock plant © Steven J Baskauf/ Bioimages

Dock plant © Steven J Baskauf/ Bioimages

If you get stung, always look around as there is usually a natural remedy, the dock leaf, growing close by. The dock leaf contains chemicals that when rubbed over the sting neutralise it and also cool the skin down.

We should think ourselves lucky in the UK as nettles elsewhere in the world can have a much harsher effect - a nettle species in Timor, southeast Asia, causes a burning sensation and symptoms like lockjaw that can last for days or weeks.

Gardener's choice

Nettles are a great home for ladybirds and so are a big help to gardeners trying to fight off plagues of aphids. They are also full of nitrogen that can be used for breaking down woody material in your compost heap.

Nettles are also thought to have anti-fungal properties as they seem to protect neighbouring plants from fungal diseases and when used as a packing material for fruit they prevent mould growth.

Further Information

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