Weed of the Week Nettles The Ecology of Nettles


Urtica dioica the stinging nettles with its stems and leaves densely   covered with stinging hairs, which release potential pain-inducing toxins   when brushing contact is made with them, is rarely eaten by rabbits. However nettle seeds have been found in cow dung so are eaten by cattle. Nettles have a higher nutritional value than the fodder crops amongst which they thrive. Nettles contain 5 times the copper and 1.5 times the iron content of fodder grasses   and when dried may be consumed by cattle without ill effects. They are palatable   to some species of snail (Salisbury 1961). The stings offer little defence against caterpillars. Up to 31 species of Lepidoptera butterflies and moths   feed on stinging nettles, of which the adults of 4 species and 31 larvae feed   (Davis 1991).

Urtica dioica is the food plant of the larvae of a  number of attractive butterflies and other phytophagous insects. Nettles are home to a lot of butterflies like the   Red Admiral Vanessa atalanta, Small Tortoiseshell Aglais urticae,   Peacock butterfly Inchis io and the Comma butterfly Polygonia   c-album. They use the nettle to lay their eggs on and when the larva   hatch they feed on the nettles.

Red Admiral Vanessa atalanta

                                                                           red admiral butterfly on nettles

Small Tortoiseshell Aglais urticae

          small tortoiseshell butterfly on nettles

Peacock butterfly Inchis io

peacock butterfly on nettles


Comma butterfly Polygonia c-album.

comma butterfly on nettles

Some moths also use the nettle patch to lay their eggs or feed, they include   the Burnished Brass moth Diachrysia chrysitis,

burnished brass moth

Snout Hypena proboscidalis, on   left and

small magpie moth

Small Magpie Moth Pleuroptya   ruralis, 

        Cream spot tiger Arctica   villica, and Scarlet Tiger Callimorpha  claminula, in the picture

scarlet tiger


Garden tiger caterpillar Arctica   caja,

garden tiger moth caterpillar



Buff ermine Spilosoma luteum,  in the picture  and Silver Y Autographa pulchrina,

Buff ermine Spilosoma luteum



Angle shades Phlogophora meticulosa, and on the   right The Spectacle Abrostola triplasia,

angle shades Phylogophora meticulosathe Spectacle Abrostola triplasia


Beautiful Golden Y Autographa pulchrina,

Beautiful Golden Y Autographa pulchrina

Nettle Top moth Anthophila   fabricana and the Mother of Pearl moth Pleuroptya ruralis  pictured below(Davis 1991).

Mother of Pearl moth Pleuroptya ruralis


(These images were produced by   the British Moth Project, FLIKR and various universities Thank-you for   letting me use these images)

The larvae of all of these   species have been reported feeding on nettle foliage. In addition spiders,   harvestmen, woodlice and snails feed on nettle plants.

Jumping Plant Lice Trioza urticae use the nettle to lay theirs   eggs, where they create a gall (an abnormal growth produced by the plant or   other host which causes an enlargement on the plant that provides food and   shelter for the host.)

Jumping Plant Lice

jumping plant lice

Some insects like the Nettle Weevil Phyllobius pomaceus, the   Small Nettle Weevil Cidnorhinus quadrimaculatus, the Small Green   Nettle Weevil Phyllobius roboretanus and the Green Nettle Weevil Phyollobius   viridaeris only live in nettle patches.

From left to right The Nettle Weevil, Small Nettle Weevil

nettle weevilsmall nettle weevil

The small Green Nettle Weevil  pictured below and Green Nettle Weevil

untitledsmall green nettle weevil

Nettle Aphids Microolophium carnosum and Aphis urticata   also live on nettles where ladybirds go to feed on them. Ants can be found   protecting and herding aphids for the sweet nectar they secrete. Leaf-Mining   Flies Agromyza anthracina; Agromyza pseudoreptans and Agromyza   reptans use nettles for food by burrowing between the leaves.

Nettle Aphids  Aphis urticata

nettle aphids


Many birds like the coal tit, blue tit, siskin, reed bunting and   bullfinch are attracted to nettles for the seeds and insects.

The work of the Nettle Leaf Miner

nettle leaf miner


History of the uses of Nettles

History of the uses of nettles

Fabric woven of nettle fibre has been found in burial sites dating back to the Bronze age. A Bronze Age (2200 – 700 BCE) body was discovered in Denmark wrapped in cloth made from nettles.

Ancient Fabric from Denmark made of Nettles

ancient nettle cloth

Human settlements that have long since been abandoned can be spotted by archaeologists as nettles still grow there.
Nettles at Danehill Fort

nettles at Danehill fort

The plant is listed as one of the Anglo Saxon nine sacred herbs. Samuel Pepys enjoyed nettle porridge on 25th February 1661 and Sir Walter Scott wrote about the gardener in Rob Roy raising nettles for use as early spring kale (Mabey 2010).

The Romans are said to have brought Urtica pilulifera to Britain where they used them to relieve rheumatism and arthritis by flogging themselves with small branches of them tied together, this stimulates the blood. They also used them to keep out the cold of the damp British climate. However this species of nettle is not common in the United Kingdom.
Urtica pilulifera

Urtica pilulifera

Nettles Urtica dioica have been used to make cloth, paper, fishing nets, sails, tablecloths, ropes and textiles since the Neolithic times. The German army used nettle for their uniforms in World War 1 However it took 40kg of nettles to make a single shirt. In the Second World War the leaves were used to make the green dye for the military uniforms.  Today nettles are again being used to make cloth as they are Eco-friendly and easy to grow. The tough fibres from the stem are used to make the cloth. It is reported that it is stronger than cotton and finer than hemp. People used to sleep between the sheets made from nettles.

Nettle Cloth

nettle fabric

 Nettles can also be used to make paper, however the process is complicated

Nettle Paper

nettle paper

There are records of nettle fibres being spun into ropes.

Nettle Rope

 The roots can also be made into a dye that is yellow (Mabey 1977).
The chlorophyll is used as a green dye and is listed as a food colorant (E140) by the European Community.

Weed of the week Stinging Nettles Urtica dioica

Weed of the week Stinging Nettles Urtica dioica