The Common stinging nettle Urtica dioica, is the most well-known and prosperous example of the Family Urticaceace in Britain. Infamous for its painful sting caused by chemical injection via trichome hairs, this dioecious plant is easily recognised by its opposite, deeply veined and serrated leaves. The tiny flowers are borne in dense axillary clusters and are greenish or brownish in colour.
Urtica dioica is a very significant plant for me because of my interest in the Insect Order Lepidoptera. Nettle leaves and flowers, and those of its closely related cousin the Dwarf nettle Urtica urens, are the larval food of several of Britain’s most familiar Nymphalidae butterflies. The caterpillars of Inachis io (the Peacock) and Vanessa atalanta (the Red Admiral) rely on nettles as a food plant. Red Admiral caterpillars are solitary and construct protective tents from the nettle leaves, while Peacock caterpillars are gregarious, often stripping the leaves of entire plants before moving to the next.
Take a summer walk through Reading University’s Whiteknights campus and you will notice frequently occurring clusters of nettles in sheltered and shady areas. Even during the winter, the Common nettle can be seen growing along the Wilderness woodland path. It is important that these plants are protected in such areas if we hope to preserve the butterfly species that rely on them.
By Rory Carr
Copyright for non-commercial purposes only.
Rose, F. 2006. Nettle Family (Urticaceae). In: O’Reilly, C. ed. The Wild Flower Key. 2nd ed. London, England: The Penguin Group, pages 121 & 122.
Thomas, J. & Lewington, R. 2010. Nymphalidae. In: Thomas, J. & Lewington, R. ed. The Butterflies of Britain & Ireland. 2nd ed. Gillington, England: British Wildlife Publishing Ltd, pages 174-177 (Red Admiral Vanessa atalanta) & pages 191-194 (Peacock Inachis io).
Sterry, P. 2006. Species Descriptions: Juniper to Nettle Families. In: Collins Complete Guide to British Wild Flowers. London, England: Harper Collins Ltd, pages 22 & 23.