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Page last updated at 14:57 GMT, Thursday, 20 May 2010 15:57 UK

Know your nettles: 10 bare facts

By Zoe Kleinman
BBC News

It's national Be Nice to Nettles Week - a chance for fans of the herbaceous perennial flowering plant to redress the balance of bad publicity. But apart from making children miserable, what have stinging nettles ever done for us?

A nettle, recently.

It's difficult to show a nettle much love. You can't touch it, for one thing.

For many children the stinging pain of their first nettle rash is also a gentle first lesson about the darker side of nature. We told you not to go charging into the bushes after that football.

But the treacherous weed can be tamed and put to good use - so here are 10 reasons why nettles are worth nurturing.

1. Butterflies can't get enough of it. Nettles are butterfly food for at least two common British species - the Red Admiral and Painted Lady. Without these ruthlessly efficient plant pollinators all sorts of crops would suffer and that in turn could affect the human food chain. It's not just the disappearance of the bees we need to worry about.

2. They're medicinal. Nutritional therapist Jenny Logan claims that nettles can be used to ease the symptoms of gout, among other ailments. "They help to clear excess uric acid out of the joint - and it is the uric acid which causes the pain and inflammation associated with gout."

3. They are survivors. The sting on the underside of the nettle leaf is designed to protect it. Tiny hairs laced with formic acid sink into the skin leaving raised bumps.

4. They tend to come with their own first aid kit.Dock leaves are commonly believed to soothe the symptoms of a nettle sting, and they often grow close by. But their proximity is pure coincidence says Phil Griffiths, conservatories manager at Kew Gardens. "They're just both very quick to adapt to neglected areas."

Nettle dress
De Montfort University scientists made a dress from nettles.

5. Nettles are chic. The fibre inside the plants can be spun into string and used to make fabric for clothing, cushion covers, and even paper. "A mature nettle is incredibly fibrous, like flaxen," says Guy Barter from the Royal Horticultural Society.

6. The German army used nettle fabric to make army uniforms during World War I.

7. It's low-maintenance. Nettles love wasteland. They will flourish wherever the soil is rich in phosphate and are common throughout Northern Europe. They can grow to be 4ft tall.

8. The plants are packed with magnesium, iron and calcium - all essential minerals for healthy humans, says trainee nutritional therapist Lucy Tones.

9. They're tasty too, although nettle nutrition is a dish best served hot. The sting disappears when the leaves are boiled which is probably why they are most commonly consumed in the form of tea. If that's not your cuppa, nettle soup is also "earthy, slightly tangy, outrageously healthy," according to Good Food magazine blogger Toby Travis. The basic ingredients are nettles, onions, potato, stock and seasoning.

10. And finally, they can raise your spirits... literally. Nettle wine is a traditional country wine that's enjoying a bit of a resurgence. It is a very dry, crisp wine that "retains a bit of a prickle" according to Lyme Bay Winery manager James Lambert. The winery recently made 3,000 litres of its unusual tipple using 40kg of nettles.

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