If your first instinct when you see nettles appearing in your garden is to get rid quick - take a moment to find out more about nettles, why they are important to our environment and also why they are known as 'A Woman's Weed'.  

The nettle supports over 40 species of insect including some of our most colourful butterflies and Be Nice to Nettles Week aims to encourage us to appreciate their importance.

This may seem strange given the stinging power of the nettle but it is the presence of the stings that has allowed the relationship with numerous insect species to develop. The stinging hairs of the nettle developed as a defence against grazing animals.

So effective are they that few grazers, with the exception of goats and hungry sheep, will touch nettles when the stings are active. This makes the ideal habitat for insects as there is little danger of the adult insects or larvae ending up in the stomach of a cow! Insects can also move between the spines without activating the sting.

The most notable nettle patch inhabitants are the small tortoiseshell and peacock butterfly larvae which feed in large groups hidden in silken tents at the top of the nettle stems.

Many nettle patches hold overwintering aphids which swarm around the fresh spring growth and provide an early food source for ladybirds. These same aphids are eaten in large numbers by blue tits and other woodland birds agile enough to dart around the stems.

In late summer the huge quantity of seed produced provide a food source for many of our seed eating birds.

It can be seen that the nettle plays a very important role for both rural and urban wildlife - indeed some of the insect species such as the nettle weevil live only in the nettle patch.

So why are nettles thought to be a woman’s weed?  Many women believe nettles are great as an energy tonic for young girls just starting out on their menstruating journey, through to menopausal women because of their affinity with the blood.  Nettles have been used as an aid to fertility and because of their high mineral content they are viewed as good for sexual vitality.  Pregnant women use nettles as an excellent source of vitamin K, however you should always check with your midwife before making changes to your diet. Native American women use this wonder weed throughout pregnancy and as a remedy to stop haemorrhaging during childbirth. Finally, lactating women drink nettle tea because of its milk-boosting properties.  So now you know!

Hopefully we can start to look at the nettle patch in a different light and pause a while to admire its effective survival strategy.  A compromise would be to choose a small corner of your garden, where nettles are allowed to thrive without interfering with your enjoyment.

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