Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Stinging Nettle. Food for Butterflies and Food for Us

I went for a walk yesterday morning, May 7, and noticed the nettles growing fast and furiously. The tender leaves are an invitation to gourmets who enjoy this healthy vegetable. I have never tasted it, but I think it is time to do so. I tried collecting a few leaves, but soon found out the sting was surprisingly powerful. I have picked up leaves in other occasions with little consequence. I may have to go back wearing gloves.

I found many recipes in the Internet. Garlicky pesto sounds promising. I will try that. Stinging nettle soup also looks tempting.

Early May is perhaps the best time to collect leaves. The plants are already tall and vigorous and, when I collected them yesterday, they seemed free from hungry visitors. However, I am surprised the next day when I look at the leaves in their plastic bag. They are now crawling with tiny aphids.  Last year I found aphids eagerly sucking juices from these plants on May 12. Close observation of the aphids under a microscope led me to notice the impressive structure of the stinging hairs. Interspersed among the regular hairs, considerably larger but still small enough to go unnoticed by the bare eye, the stinging hairs look remarkably different. They are shaped like hypodermic syringes and bursting with fluid, ready to pierce the passerby's skin.

Aphid and stinging hairs

Insect activity grew significantly by June of last year. These plants turned into a zoo of sorts. Aphids abounded on many plants. Large, fat caterpillars were feeding on leaves. Some were hiding within neatly folded leaves shaped as tents. Others had already turned into immobile, colorful chrysalides.
Red admiral caterpillar
Red admiral pupa or chrysalis
Adult red admiral

I was happy to learn that such caterpillars would turn into the lovely admiral butterfly. Nettles can feed several other varieties of caterpillars, the comma butterfly and the spectacular Io moth among them.
Comma butterfly on winter attire

Io moth © Anita Gould

In summary, stinging nettles can enrich a diet and be a worthy addition to a butterfly garden.

© Beatriz Moisset. 2013


StayAtHomeKat said...

For so long I have wanted my own bed of Nettles ... is it too late to start some from seeds? - Kat

Unknown said...

fascinating and a very interesting blog