Why you must be nice to nettles

The Occasional Gardener Sarah Marriott When is a weed not a weed? When it's a nettle, according to the environmentalists behind…

The Occasional Gardener Sarah MarriottWhen is a weed not a weed? When it's a nettle, according to the environmentalists behind Be Nice to Nettles Week, which ends tomorrow.

Are they completely mad? Aren't nettles the scourge of gardeners and walkers - stinging legs and hands that venture near, not to mention making the landscape look uncared for?

Can't you still remember the first time you were stung by a nettle as a child, and the hunt for a dock leaf to stop the burning pain? So why on earth should we be nice to nettles?

Because nettles are wonderful for wildlife, apparently, and support more than 40 species of insect, including butterflies.

"At Butterfly Conservation, being nice to nettles comes as second nature to us - we love them! Not only are nettles good for butterflies like Red Admiral, Comma and Peacock, they also have so much to offer to other wildlife," says Charlie Rugeroni of England's Butterfly Conservation group.

Along with daffodils, one of the first signs of spring is the - much less welcome - reappearance of nettles. Instead of wrenching them out, a gardener who wants to encourage wildlife should leave them alone.

In the spring, this new growth provides food for aphids, which in turn provide a meal for predators such as ladybirds and blue tits, while in late summer, the huge quantity of seed produced feeds many birds.

Although nettles flourish in abandoned sites, they aren't necessarily a sign of neglect - even Queen Elizabeth's garden at Buckingham Palace has them.

"Nettles play an important role in the wildlife habitat areas providing a valuable food source for caterpillars," says head gardener, Mark Lane.

Well, if nettle patches are good enough for a professional gardener, they're good enough for me.

With a clear conscience, I can take these now ex-weeds off my "to do" list - though I am tempted to put up a notice to tell visitors who get stung that the nettles are part of an effort to increase wildlife rather than a sign of my laziness.

Nettles may also be helpful around the garden as they can stimulate the growth of nearby plants.

This may be because clumps of nettles between fruit bushes, for example, will attract beneficial predators which will help to control pests while also providing organic compost and plant food.

Although most of us would happily eradicate the nettle, they used to be popular - the young leaves were actually seen as a spring treat.

The sting disappears when you cook them and nettle soups or stir-fries are a good source of vitamin C, calcium, magnesium, iron and trace elements.

Nettle-leaf tea is a diuretic and has been used to treat prostate problems while studies suggest it may aid blood coagulation.

And the sting also comes in useful: nettles have been used to treat rheumatism and arthritis since biblical times - the inflamed joints are thrashed with the stinging leaves - while native Americans would flog themselves with nettles to stay awake before battles.

Less laissez-faire gardeners than myself, who simply can't stand the sight of nettles and have to get rid of them, can recycle.

Brew a nutritious plant food by soaking a bucketful in water for a week or so, strain and then spray this organic liquid over foliage to provide minerals, deter pests and prevent fungal diseases.

You can also stick them in your compost bin - since nettles are rich in nitrogen, they encourage bacteria to break down woody material in the compost.

And if you think Irish nettles are painful, think again. One species in Timor causes symptoms like lockjaw, which can last for weeks - while one species in Java is known to kill its