For thousands of years this notoriously, nasty, rash inducing weed was an important part of our food chain, medicine, transport and textile industries.

Rich in calcium, protein and iron dried nettles were used as winter fodder for horses, cattle, sheep, goats, poultry and other livestock. Nettle fibres provided ropes, twine and fine linens for clothing, while nettle dyes coloured everything from Harris Tweed to camouflaged netting during the Second World War. In medicine stingy nettles featured as a remedy for a whole catalogue of complaints from arthritis through to nose bleeds.

Today national “Be Nice to Nettles Week” is aimed at increasing awareness of the importance of nettles to British wildlife and encouraging gardeners to grow more.

If you are courageous enough to look closely at a nettle patch you will find a whole buzzing metropolis of insect life. Nettles support than more 40 species of insects that in turn provide a rich food source for other animals including birds, hedgehogs, shrews, frogs, toads and other insect lovers.

How does this benefit gardeners? Nettles act as a self-regulating garden pest control system. Old gardeners’ enemies such as sap sucking aphids and brassica ravaging “cabbage whites” are attracted to stingy nettles luring them away from valuable ornamental plants and prized vegetables. Aphids and other pests residing in the nettle patch, in turn attract a whole range of popular “garden friendly” insect predators including colourful lacewings, damselflies and most importantly ladybirds. Ladybirds are voracious predators of aphids, red spider mite, whitefly and other pests in both their adult and larval stages. Nettles are their preferred egg-laying site and one clutch of around 40 ladybird larvae will gorge their way through roughly 6,000 aphids a day.

Some of Britain’s most colourful species of declining butterfly including the popular Peacock, Small Tortoiseshell, Red Admiral and Comma are reliant on stingy nettle patches as breeding grounds. Whilst most gardeners are keen on providing “nectar bars” of flowering plants as a food source for these glamorous butterflies, sadly providing suitable breeding sites is often over looked.

Nettles are easy to propagate and can be grown in any type of large container, grow bags or old wheel barrows that can be moved out the way of children. In open beds, nettles are very invasive, to contain their spread, nettles are best kept away from trees and shrubs in an area which can easily be dug round. Although nettles will tolerate shade the ideal nettle patch for attracting butterflies should be in a sheltered sunny spot.

To make the most of your nettles cut them back before the end of this month. The new shoots will attract more beneficial insects and provide the perfect egg laying sites for later breeding butterflies. For keen cooks these young shoots have many uses in soups, sauces, salads, and stews.

The clippings have numerous uses too; rich in nitrogen they make a particularly good liquid plant food and are an excellent accelerant for compost heaps speeding up decomposition and breaking down woody matter.

As summer draws to an end and the nettles die back, sit back and watch the seed feeding birds feasting on the nettle heads. Over winter, if left undisturbed, your nettle patch will provide a safe haven for overwintering insects to start the same cycle over again in the spring.

Lastly, remember to handle nettles with care wear gloves, long sleeves and a good pair of wellies.

Happy gardening!

Lindsay Gemmell, Countryside Ranger