One of the most important books about wildlife-friendly gardening ever written is called No Nettles Required by the Daily Telegraph columnist and Sheffield University senior lecturer, Dr Ken Thompson. I won't praise him too much as he sometimes reads this blog - we don't want it to go to his head - but for those who haven't read it it is not only enlightening but also laugh-out-loud funny. The main message of the book is that encouraging wildlife is entirely compatible with ordinary gardening, and that if you thought it means planting beds of Nettles and Brambles, then think again.
In that I wholly agree. Full stop.
But it doesn't mean that you shouldn't plant Nettles if you want to, and I was reminded of that as I walked around the garden this week. In an area of the garden that for several decades was a large chicken pen, Stinging Nettles spring up with great vigour, presumably still benefitting from the nitrogen-packed residues from the chicken poo-enriched soil. In my shorts, I brushed past a large clump and as my legs began to tingle, some white moths fluttered out from under the nettle leaves where they had been hiding and hurriedly blundered back into cover. Their instinct was clearly to get under a leaf and hang upside down:
Getting a better view of them meant crawling in under the Nettles, such is the lengths I will go to to suffer for this blog.
It is here that you really get to appreciate this moth. It is part of the big group of moths called the 'micro moths', which include some of our smallest species and the most tricky to identify, but this micromoth is almost as large as, say, a Small White butterfly, and is very distinctive.
It is called the Mother of Pearl, and it is found in nettle-beds across the country, the adults flying between June and October, and the green caterpillars munching happily on the leaves, presumably more immune to the stings than my by now polka-dotted legs and arms.
Hopefully you can make out some of the sheen on the wings that gives the moth its name:
And it is not only the Mother of Pearl that finds a home in nettle-beds. I'm delving into my photo archive for the next photos, but these moths also have caterpillars that feed on Nettle leaves. First up, the Small Magpie:
And I adore the Burnished Brass:
But perhaps my favourite is the Spectacle. From above, it has some very attractive patterning on its wings and a wonderful shaggy mane:
...but it is when you see it from in front that you realise how it got its name. You've got to love a moth that looks like this!
The old adage that you had to grow Nettles to help wildlife probably came from the fact that it is the foodplant of Peacock, Small Tortoiseshell, Comma and Red Admiral butterflies. However, what many people found who grew Nettles in their garden was that none of these butterflies every bred there. We now know the reason: the first three species all require large beds of the plant growing in sunny locations, and indeed their requirements are even more exacting than that. For example, Small Tortoiseshells need short, fresh growth, so you can see why a few leggy plants in a semi-shady part of the garden just won't do.
However, the Mother of Pearl and many other species of moth and bug will cope perfectly well in such conditions. So, yes, nettles are not required, but if you choose to grow them, there's plenty of wildlife that will benefit, and plenty for you to look out for. From a safe distance!
Yes sunny but it's never that sheltered in Dunbar I'll try another pot next year. I live in a new build estate (about 2-3 years old) so keen to try and encourage wildlife into my garden. Slowly getting there. Maybe the butterflies don't have many options yet!
That's really good going, Jen. It may be that the deadheading you did prompted the fresh growth that the caterpillars like. Did you have the pot in a sunny, sheltered position?
This year I tried for the first time to grow nettles in a big pot. Didn't really expect much but thought I would start to grow nettles for when one day I might have a bigger area. Didn't want the roots to spread and cut the flowers off to avoid spreading seed. Put it in a sunny location and to my surprise got a few caterpillars on them. One small tortoiseshell got as far a a cocoon and then found the empty cocoon so it produced at least one butterfly. In addition to that there were a few peacock butterfly caterpillars. So worth a try!!
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