Beautiful Native Plants

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Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Stinging Nettle. Food for Butterflies and Food for Us

Stinging nettle foliage © Beatriz Moisset.

Last May I went for a walk at my favorite nature center, and I noticed the nettles growing fast and furiously along the trail. Urtica dioica is a native plant that grows through most of North America as the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center tell us. The Brooklyn Botanic Garden warns us about its powerful sting in Weed of the Month: Stinging Nettle.

This plant is a healthy vegetable, and its tender leaves invite gourmets who know what is good. I have never tasted it, but I thought it was 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, and I have seen others collect leaves with no concern. I may to wear gloves in my next foray.

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 was surprised the next day when I looked at the leaves in their plastic bag. They were 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.

© Beatriz Moisset.
Aphid and stinging hairs © Beatriz Moisset.
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 chrysalises.

Red admiral caterpillar © Beatriz Moisset.
Red admiral pupa or chrysalis © Beatriz Moisset.
Adult red admiral © Beatriz Moisset.
I was happy to learn that such caterpillars would turn into the lovely admiral butterfly. Nettles can feed about twenty species of caterpillars. The admiral, painted lady, comma butterfly and the spectacular Io moth are perhaps the best known and loved ones.

Comma butterfly in winter attire © Beatriz Moisset.
Io moth © Anita Gould
 In summary, stinging nettles can enrich our diet and be a worthy addition to a butterfly garden.

© Beatriz Moisset.