|The verge outside, complete with nettle patch|
Nettles have been the bane of my gardening life. The dene has rafts of them. The verge outside my house which I haven’t mowed since about 1997 but have strimmed is currently sporting a good collection. Nettles can swamp out other plants and well they are nettles. I have generally opted for pulling them. However as I am trying to recover from my Ecological Tidiness Disorder, I thought I ought to figure out what was a nettle good for.
Quite a lot actually.
Nettles support 40 different types of pollinators. They are particularly important for butterflies – the extravagant ones like Red Admirals and Peacocks, the ones I have buddleia so that they can feed in the late autumn. However, it should have been obvious to me – you can’t have butterflies if you starve their larvae. And these feed on nettles. In fact, a good sunny nettle patch is so important to a Peacock male in enticing a female that he has been known to drive off birds.
The reason why nettles host so many different types of insects is that most giant herbivores will not eat them. Their stings mean that they offer safe havens for the insects at important stages during their lifecycle.
The habitat for nettles is decreasing as verges get mowed in the interests of 'safety', and fields get built over etc. However without them, we will not have Peacocks and Red Admirals. Just as without milk thistle in California, you don't get Monarch butterflies.
Nettles grow where there has been human disturbance. They can be used to indicate that a building once should there or that a wood was cultivated.
In short, my pulling out of nettles inadvertently has done more harm to the ecosystem than I had considered. I might be allergic to them but they are important for a healthy ecosystem. And I do worry that they sometimes crowd out other native plants. It had been one of my big schemes for this year – pull nettles early to see what other wild plants grow. For example, under the bridge, honesty (good for holly blue butterlies -- had one in my garden last week) and Welsh poppies have flowered this year because I pulled the nettles early. But I really want to encourage pollinators so I shall be leaving the nettles alone. Or if I do pull them because I get tired of being stung, I will be pulling them after the caterpillar season has finished in July/August time.
It is going to take a change of mind set but it can be done. Nettles = butterflies has to be my new motto. And I do like seeing Peacocks fluttering about my garden in late summer.