Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Mild Winter Decimates Stinging Nettle Patch?

Last summer, during one of our nature classes, which I considered a part of my MooseBoots journey in spite of the fact that it was set up for homeschoolers, we found a large patch of stinging nettles.  I was very excited to meet this new friend and found a lot of great information about its medicinal and nutritional value.  As it flowered, I gathered a paper grocery bag full of leaves to use as tea over the winter.  It turns out, I also gathered thousands of nettles seeds.

I had become fascinated by them.  I feel an affinity for them that is difficult to explain.  I anxiously awaited their return this spring.  I watched them grow from tiny little sprouts to lavish plants covered in beautiful leaves.  I visited the patch regularly and harvested over 1 pound (0.5 kilograms) of the leaves and dried them for tea.  When I harvest the plant, odd as it may sound, I do not wear gloves, as many people do.  I consider  feeling the sting a part of working with, and honoring, the plant.  The tingling sting can last for hours and some people believe it stimulates the body's immune response.

Knowing how I feel about this incredible plant, you can imagine my shock when I visited and found all of the leaves eaten, bare stems swaying in the breeze.  I was devastated.  Upon closer inspections, I found larva on the stems.  This brought to mind that a friend had mentioned that the Red Admiral Butterflies were migrating in huge numbers this year.  Could this be the larva of the Red Admiral?  After a bit of research, I decided it was the cause.

The Red Admiral Butterflies can not tolerate cold weather and typically breed in the south and migrate north in the spring and summer to lay their eggs.  According to an article I found, the winter was mild and allowed the butterflies to winter further north than usual and breed in greater numbers.  This is coupled with an apparent cycle of larger numbers migrating every ten years or so, spelled the destruction of my favorite patch of nettles.  In fact, all three patches I have found were destroyed.  So, the mild winter decimated the stinging nettles patches that I like to visit.  Thankfully, I gave most of the seeds I had gathered last year to friends to plant, so the nettles will begin anew.

The question that remains in my mind is this ... what predictions can we make about the future of the ecosystem around me?  Adult Red Admiral Butterflies feed on the nectar of milkweed, mint, and clover among others.  I would expect that those plants in my area will benefit from the large number of butterflies and may produce record numbers of seed and be particularly prolific next year.  Will we see an increase in certain bird and bat populations because of the greater availability of prey?  Will the nettles produce substantially larger numbers of seeds next year to compensate?  Will the fibers grown in the nettles stalks be stronger, longer, or different than those grown last year?

I can only guess to the full impact this will have.  Nature will surely compensate ... she seems to be more than competent in this regard.  I am eager to see if I notice the adjustments while wandering my MooseBoots path.

Oh yeah ... did you notice what appears to be a Red Admiral Butterfly in the third photo?  If you'd like to learn more about the Red Admiral Butterfly, or be able to identify other butterflies, check out the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Butterflies.


  1. So now what - can you still harvest some of the other plant parts for things like fiber for cordage? Or are the plants "ruined" for the time being? I'm only just learning more about the uses of stinging nettle - wish I knew much more since it's very proliferate in the areas of WA that I lived in a few years back. Kinda like how I ended up with little mushrooms in my front yard because of the sawdust from when my house there was built. Now years later I have learned they were EDIBLE! *shaking head* I shoulda grabbed a guide book... ;)

  2. Melonie, I certainly intend to harvest some stalks for cordage. I have read that stinging nettles are perennials, so I assume they will be back next year.

    Don't beat yourself up ... there is a lot to learn. I am often amazed by the things I learn, but it always shows how much more there is.


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