Stinging Nettles – friend, not foe

When I take people on a tour of my vegie patch, people are fascinated that I deliberately leave a patch of stinging nettles growing.  I think stinging nettles are a much misunderstood weed and I love to explain to visitors their many benefits.  No one likes their sting of course, which comes from the fine hairs on their leaves.  However you can still garden around them if you wear gloves and possibly long sleeves, and to be honest the sting isn’t necessarily painful, it is more irritating and the sensation goes away in a few minutes.

Firstly, if stinging nettles are growing in your garden it is the sign of highly fertile soil.  In fact I take it as a compliment as they grow in soil high in nutrients.  That is why they are often seen growing around the sheep and cattle, or where the animals shelter in the paddock.  Often people get stinging nettles in their garden when they bring in raw animal manures to increase the organic matter in their soil.

Secondly they are a wonderful additive to compost where they act as a compost accelerator as they speed up the decomposition process.  Obviously it is best to add them before the seeds form, as most home garden composting systems don’t get hot enough to kill the week seeds.  You can also make a weed tea from them and this is perfect if the plants have set seed.  Soak your plants in a bucket of water for a week or more.  During this time the brew will become quite smelly, however when the liquid gets dark, strain the rotten plant out and add this to your compost, and use the liquid as a fertiliser.  Like most brews be it work or bokashi juice, it is best to store the concentrate in a bottle and dilute it down to the colour of week tea to use it on the garden.  You can either use it on green leafy plants or even water it on your compost.

australian admiral butterfly on tin

Thirdly they are edible as cooking neutralises the stinging hairs.  Some people love to make nettle soup or even nettle pesto.  Some people steam them and serve with olive oil and lemon.  To be honest I have a vegie patch so full of delicious vegies that I don’t really bother eating my nettles.  I have had nettle soup and it was quite nice, although cynically I think if you add enough stock, salt and pepper to anything, it is pleasant.  It is best to pick the fresh new growth, before the plant gets old and develops seeds.   Nettle tea made from the fresh or dried leaf or roots is also quite refreshing and it has been used throughout history as an herbal tea believed to support kidney function, reduce allergies and decrease joint pain.

Finally, and most importantly in my opinion, they are a caterpillar food plant for the Australian Admiral butterfly.  These butterflies appear dark, almost black, when they fly by although you may get a flash of cream and tan if their wings are open.  I have seen my first few for this season in the last few weeks as the weather has warmed up.  Like many butterflies, the butterfly itself can gather nectar from a wide variety of plants, however their caterpillars are quite specific about the food that they can eat and in this case, the Australian admiral caterpillar will only eat plants from the nettle family, either the native stinging nettle or the exotic weedy stinging nettle.

patch of stinging nettles with chryalis in it

So if you have a patch of nettles, look out for the butterfly and carefully look through your nettles from the caterpillars and their chrysalis.  For more information on butterfly gardening get a copy of Attracting Butterflies to Your Garden – What to grow and conserve on the Adelaide Plains published by the Butterfly Conservation Society of SA.

However to keep things in balance, and while I do suggest that you keep a patch of stinging nettles in your garden, you don’t want them to get out of hand and you do need to control their seeding and where they grow.

These photos were taken by Linda Shmith.  You can contact her and see more of her fabulous images on her Facebook page The Making of a Monarch – Butterfly.

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