Teachers' Resources

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The resources provided here have been submitted by Heritage Experts, teachers or prepared by other educational organisations. The resources are both fun and educational and are designed to inspire and develop an appreciation and curiosity about Ireland’s wonderful natural and cultural heritage.

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Nettles (All About)

Environmental awareness and care (Geography/Science), Living things (Science) / Science

Latin name: Urtica dioica
Irish name: Neantóg

The nettle is a familiar plant to everyone - sometimes alas from the experience of getting stung by it! However, it is a plant that has been highly valued in this country for hundreds of years. It first appears in early spring when the fresh green shoots are seen to emerge in ditches, hedges and waste places. It grows where the soil is rich in phosphate as it needs lots of this nutrient for growth.

It can grow up to 100cm high and can occur in dense clumps. The leaves are opposite each other on a square stem and are covered with stinging hairs. The flowers are small and green and they hang down from the leaf axils in long spikes from June to September. There are separate male and female flowers and they are borne on different plants.

There are no petals to attract insects nor indeed is there nectar to lure them in. The plant is pollinated by the wind which shakes the flowers and blows the pollen to other flowers. Seeds are formed singly and are shaken from the plants to germinate nearby, thus making the clump larger. They are unpopular among the unwary because of their sting. This happens when they are touched lightly. The tip of the hair breaks off leaving a sharp spike that penetrates the skin and injects an irritating mixture of histamine and formic acid. It is widely believed that a dock leaf will cure the sting. Dock leaves usually grow nearby as they like soil rich in phosphate too but the relief they offer is because a large cool leaf is being applied to the stung area - a large damp tissue would give the same ease.

If you grasp a nettle firmly however the hair is completely flattened and cannot sting. However, it was believed that nettle stings were good for rheumatism and inflamed joints. They are edible early in the year and were traditionally gathered (while wearing gloves!) to make a soup full of vitamins at a time of year when native vegetables were scarce. The stings disappear entirely in the cooking.

The stalks contain strong fibre which used to be gathered, extracted and woven into cloth in Ireland since Bronze Age times. In the Hans Anderson fairy tale 'The Wild Swans', the princess had to weave shirts from nettle fibre to restore her brothers from swans to humans. They are wonderful food for insects as well. The caterpillars of small tortoiseshell and peacock butterflies love them as do lots of types of aphids.

Things To do with Third Class
1.    Read them the fairy tale 'The Wild Swans’.
2.    Make Nettle Soup! Collect nettles and make nettle soup early in May. It is made exactly as spinach soup except well-washed, finely chopped, young nettles are used instead.
3.    Go out and look for nettles in June or September. Sweep a net on a long pole through them to sweep off whatever creatures are feeding on them. In June, there should be lots of caterpillars, in September hordes of greenflies.