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Writing on Stinging Nettles

Tall Nettles

Matthew Oates, autumn 2015 – on Stinging Nettles, with a poem from Edward Thomas

Matthew Oates

Be Nice to Nettles Week came and went, having stung no one into action. A highly successful ruderal dicotyledonous plant forming monospecific stands by rhizome spread... The stinging nettle is, after all, the most abundant broad-leaved plant in the UK, occurring on diverse soils from sea level to 850m, and in 2773 of the 2805 10km squares that cover Britain. Alone amongst terrestrial plants, it has benefited from our profligate use of nitrogen and phosphorus, to rule the hedge bottom, the headland and wood edge, and what was once the primrose bank

Tall nettles cover up, as they have done
These many springs, the rusty harrow


Leaves opposite, decussate; lowers ovate, uppers ± lanceolate, both with base ± cordate, acuminate, coarsely serrate. Lamina with conspicuous urticaceous hairs… This is the nation’s least favourite plant, but one everyone can readily identify. Shoots erect, generally 1.5-2m tall, rarely reaching 3m… Inflorescences axillary, spike-like, four per node, multi-flowered; several thousand flowers per panicle; mostly wind pollinated… In suitable soils, seeds can accumulate at densities of up to 10,000 per square metre, and persist many years. One pastureland bed produced c. 30,000 seeds per shoot… Nettle beds can persist indefinit

Long worn out, and the roller made of stone:
Only the elm butt tops the nettles now.

The nettle makes its own bed, bedding itself down, precluding almost all other plants, through will power and utter strangulation. A monoculture, perhaps, but 86 phytophagous insect species have been recorded feeding on it in the UK, plus their associated invertebrate predators and parasites. Some of these nettle associates are immensely beautiful, like the Peacock and Small Tortoiseshell butterflies, both of which are quintessential elements of summer sunshine. Three species of deer, some 20 species of micro fungi, and various slugs and snails like it. Thus the nettle passes the biodiversity test. It practices phenotypic plasticity… whatever that may be.

This corner of the farmyard I like most:
As well as any bloom upon a flower

Germination is epigeal. The achene splits at the apex and a radical emerges. The hypocotyl elongates and straightens…

I like the dust on the nettles, never lost
Except to prove the sweetness of a shower.

The nettle is a thug, a Triffid, a Dalek. Like us, it seeks nothing short of world domination. This, rather than its sting, most virulent in spring – normally containing histamine, acetylcholine, 5-hydroxtryptamine, serotonin and formic acid… – is why we hate it. Yet it is our abuse of land that encourages it. It is our partner in crimes against Creation.

Edward Thomas, spring 1916.

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Maligned Species is a free poetry-writing project – encouraging poetry with a scientific slant. Monies from each Poetry on Stinging Nettles ebook sold will be donated to Plantlife


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