Stinging Nettles, by Michael Blencowe of the Sussex Wildlife Trust
In the shadows under the Oak trees my enemy awaits. There are hundreds of them, huddled together in a silent, ferocious mob. With their drab green leaves and insignificant flowers, the Stinging Nettle is a joyless plant infamous only for its ability to inflict pain. I can almost hear these nettles straining at their roots, desperately trying to reach me because I am in possession of something they crave: a pair of bare legs. When I started writing this article, I realised that I hadn’t been stung by a Stinging Nettle for so long that I had forgotten what it felt like. So, dear reader, just for you I am wading into a nettle patch in a pair of shorts.
As my legs brush the underside of the nettles’ leaves, I break the fragile tips off hundreds of hollow hairs, and I’m injected with histamine, serotonin and acetylcholine, with a splash of formic acid. This volatile cocktail acts like napalm on my knees – my skin itches and blisters and that familiar fiery, tingling, pulsing pain sears up my spinal cord. The plant does not inflict this agony as some sadistic vendetta against schoolchildren and writers. The nettle’s hairy, hurtful suit of armour is a defence mechanism against hungry herbivores.
Despite our hatred for the Stinging Nettle, we have found many uses for it over the centuries as cloth, medicine, and food. Seventeenth century Sussex herbalist Nicholas Culpeper claimed nettles – which “can be found by feeling in the darkest night” – cured everything from nosebleeds to leprosy. Celebrity chefs extol the virtues of vitamin-packed nettle soups, risottos and spanakopita. And the caterpillars of our most impressive butterflies enjoy munching on nettles too. Red Admirals, Peacocks, Commas and Small Tortoiseshells all depend on them.
Halfway through the nettle patch all this is offering me little comfort. If I focus my mind, I can rise above it and the waves of pain can start to feel strangely invigorating. But not for long and I soon start frantically searching for a cure. Rubbing mashed dock leaves on my legs has soothed my stings since I was a schoolboy, so I was surprised to read that it’s all a ruse. Scientists claim dock leaves are simply a placebo – and the searching and rubbing is just a distraction that numbs the pain.
Beyond the nettle patch I stumbled across an amazing glade of orchids, vibrant and stunning in the sunshine. In an instant the stinging stopped. Maybe it was all in my mind after all. Even when we are in our darkest night we need to keep pushing through the painful patches. There’s something surprising and soothing awaiting us on the other side.
Sussex Wildlife Trust is an independent charity caring for wildlife and habitats throughout Sussex. Founded in 1961, we have worked with local people for over half a century to make Sussex richer in wildlife.
We rely on the support of our members to help protect our rich natural heritage. Please consider supporting our work. As a member you will be invited to join Michael Blencowe on our regular wildlife walks and also enjoy free events, discounts on wildlife courses, Wildlife magazine and our Sussex guide book, Discovering Wildlife. It’s easy to join online at sussexwildlifetrust.org.uk/join