If you’ve ever accidentally touched the stems or foliage of stinging nettle, then you know that they give you a nasty nip! Although the sting doesn’t last more than a few hours, it’s enough to make you remember NOT to touch this plant next time! You’ll need gloves if you plan to pull this weed.
So who on earth could love this plant? Meet the Red Admiral butterfly (Vanessa atalanta). Nettles are their caterpillars’ only food plant:
This beautiful butterfly migrates in the spring from central America and the southern US north to New England and southern Canada, where it breeds near plants in the nettle (Urticacaea) family. When the caterpillars hatch, they shelter in a little fold of nettle leaf, where they feed on the foliage until they begin the transformation into a butterfly.
Stinging nettle grows aggressively in moist soil, so you don’t want it anywhere near your garden beds or next to a walking path where bare legs might brush up against it. Other wild nettles lack the stinging hairs and are easy to pull by hand, thankfully. But leave a patch or two of nettle in an out of the way spot in your garden and keep an eye out for the Red Admiral butterfly. They are still a relatively abundant butterfly across the US and will almost definitely find your backyard habitat. Let’s help keep it that way!
Ellen Sousa gardens, farms, writes and teaches from Turkey Hill Brook Farm, a small horse farm landscaped as a backyard habitat in the Worcester Hills of central Massachusetts.
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