Monday, 23 February 2009

Stinging Nettles

It was a lovely day in Lincolnshire on Saturday, almost Spring like, the washing dried on the line, the home made fat balls melted in the midday sun and I thought I might start to tidy the garden up a little bit ready for later in the year. I was ripping, hacking and tearing away at dead foliage like a man possessed and then I tackled some of last year’s nettles and was most surprised to find that they were still active and I took a cruel sting to the hand. Two days later my fingers are still covered in itchy red lumps that are most uncomfortable.

The stinging nettle is a member of the Urticaceae family and Urtica is from the Latin urere, which means 'to burn'. Across the World there are about five hundred species of nettle and some in the Far East can produce a sting, which burns for days. Urtica urentissima, for example, is found in Java, and can cause a rash for a whole year and may, in extreme cases, cause death. And so, I have to tell you, can those in my back garden.

This is the technical stuff. Stinging nettles are a dioecious herbaceous perennial, growing up to two metres tall in the summer and dying down to the ground in winter (in case you are wondering, a dioecious species cannot self-fertilize. In most of the dioecious species the male plant is of heterogametic sex XY and the female plant is of homogametic sex XX). It has very distinctively yellow, widely spreading roots, rhizomes and stolons. The soft green leaves are are borne oppositely on an erect wiry green stem and have a strongly serrated margin, a cordate base and an acuminate tip with a terminal leaf tooth longer than adjacent laterals (did you know that already?).

The leaf is where all of the stinging damage comes from because on the surface of the nettle leaf there are a lot of tiny hair-like structures, which are in fact hollow tubes, and they bear many stinging hairs, called trichomes, that contain a nasty cocktail of chemicals and whose brittle tips break off when touched, transforming the hair into a needle that will inject acetylcholine, histamine, 5-HT, serotonin, and formic acid. You would pay a fortune for a cocktail of drugs like that on the High Street on a Saturday night and you can get it for nothing in the back garden! This mixture of chemical compounds causes a sting (or paresthesia) from which the species derives its common name, as well as the alternative colloquial names such as burn nettle, burn weed and burn hazel.

After being stung it is apparently important not to scratch the rash as this can smear the chemicals around and generally only make things a lot worse. The best thing to do is to apply a soothing lotion to it, and have a nice hot cup of tea, or alternatively I find that a gin and tonic works equally as well. Many, often ineffective, folk remedies exist for treating the itching, including horsetail, dock leaves, Jewelweed, mud, saliva, baking soda, calamine lotion or soap and water but it is probably best to use soothing lotions, usually in the form of creams containing antihistaminics or hydrocortisone. I do have some dock weeds in the garden and I do use them in the summer but the relief this provides is probably just down to the placebo effect.

This is bizarre fact but in Dorset, every year, competitors come from all over the world to the World Nettle Eating Championships. I’ll say that again – the World Nettle eating championships! This is one hour of eating as many stinging nettles as possible and is held as part of a charity beer festival at the Bottle Inn in the village of Marshwood near Crewkerne. Not surprisingly, the rules are tight for this level of competitive nettle eating and only nettles provided by the organisers can be eaten, competitors are not allowed to bring their own and no mouth numbing substances are permitted - although a swig of beer in between mouthfuls is always encouraged.

This is almost as mad as the four hundred year old Belgian sport of vinkenzetting which pits male chaffinches against one another in a contest for the most bird calls in an hour. The sport was first recorded in 1596 and currently it is estimated that there are over thirteen thousand vinkeniers breeding ten thousand birds every year. This is a sport more pointless than fishing and this is how the contest works - a row of cages, each housing a single male finch, are lined up approximately two metres apart along a street; the close proximity is important because it increases the number of calls, as the birds sing for mates and to establish its territory, and every time the bird sings this is recorded as a score by making a chalk mark on a pole. The bird singing its song the most times in one hour wins the contest. Unbelievable!

When I was a boy I had a friend called Tony Gibbard and in his garden were two trees, one large and one small, which with a bit of imagination doubled up as a Lancaster bomber and a spitfire fighter. One day Tony was shot down in a surprise attack by a German Meschersmidt and he fell out of the spitfire (the Ash tree) and tumbled into a patch of nettles underneath. He didn’t half yelp and ran to the house for medical assistance. He didn’t come out again that day and when I caught up with him later he was covered in patches of pink calamine lotion all over his face and hands. He was too young for gin and tonic in 1963.

This is a picture of me and Tony at about that time when he came with us on a visit to London and we went to see the dinosaur sculptures at Crystal Palace. He was a lot taller than me and probably still is. The other two in the picture are Richard, my brother and Lindsay, my sister.

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