Thursday, October 19, 2006
Yesterday morning I was out to the hills to help my dad along with his new musical ventures: learning to play the C melody saxophone, and doing more with the guitar. After loading him up with things to practice, I strolled out to their garden and pulled a bunch of nettle stalks from the side of the weed heap. I tried breaking one underfoot and cracking apart the pith walls to see if I could find the rumoured fibers for spinning into nettle thread or yarn or whatever it would be called, but I didn't have much success. Now I am hunting more references to glean whatever tricks I can. Perhaps the stalks will need to be retted, but I'm told the odor of that process is not acceptable indoors, and water outdoors is frozen over now. I may be storing my nettle bundles until spring.
Nettles are very noticeable, and that may explain why I used to think of them as abundant. Once I set out to gather them, I decided they're not so common after all. I know of specific places where they grow thickly, but they're not the sort of plant that you see dotted here and there through a wide variety of habitat. Now I'm thinking again that I should plant some here in the yard. (That would really raise some eyebrows, no?)
Aside from their fiber content, nettles are useful as a highly nutritious early spring green. Just boil or steam them a little to neutralize the sting.
Less directly, but perhaps more importantly, nettles have value to us humans as a food plant for butterflies. Today I found a new report on the Status of Pollinators in North America, which outlines another of those slow emergencies that will probably not get much notice until it's too late. Perhaps it will never get much notice, and future schoolchildren will marvel at the fantastic stories of a time when gardens didn't need hand pollination, and the world was home to six billion people, and candy bars were made with real chocolate (pdf).
Now for the obligatory cheerful closing note about things you can do to help. The Pollinator Partnership, at www.pollinator.org, has a long list of online resources, with everything from research about native bees, to pollinator-friendly practices for golf courses, and of course articles about gardening for bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds.