Growing the Wild Dead Nettles

If we are looking through the British flora in search of good garden worthy plants that will also attract wildlife, the Labiate family, also known as the dead nettle or mint family, is important to consider.  This is a huge family comprising a variety of well know groups including the germanders, woundworts and horehounds as well as the mints and the beautiful yellow archangel – some really interesting and evocative names!  Other members of the Labiate family include the familiar herbs such as thyme, marjoram and the mints can be read about here.

This group of plants is very important in terms of the provision of food for certain insects.  Recent research investigating the decline of many bumblebee species in the wild stressed that the lack of specific wildflowers in meadows and along field edges and hedge banks, had certainly contributed to this decline.  Lack of food has been an important factor and the Labiate family, along with the clovers (the Pea family), were highlighted as plants whose decline had played a crucial part, as they provide both nectar and pollen.

In our gardens however, we can make a very positive contribution to the welfare of bumblebees, solitary bees and honey bees by growing some of these flowers and there is no better place to start than the dead nettles.  If you are unsure of the sometimes rather wandering nature of these particular wildflowers, you can substitute their variegated cousins, which still have the pollen and nectar required.  Both the wild white and red dead nettles pop up as weeds in gardens and on allotments and most of us probably do our best to irradiate them.  But if observed closely the flowers are very attractive and the leaves pleasantly aromatic.  White dead nettle (Lamium album) is a perennial plant and once established can take over, so needs to be grown with caution, perhaps in grass in a wild patch beneath trees where it can be mown from time to time.  Red dead nettle (Lamium purpureum) is an annual often occurring in vegetable plots and it flowers early in the spring. Both of these common wildflowers are in bloom as soon as the weather warms up, providing that all important food for insects coming out of hibernation.  Red dead nettle is easily removed so if you can bear to leave it while its flowers feed your local bees, you will be doing them a favour.  If the dead nettles do take your fancy but you really can’t handle their enthusiasm, try any of the Lamiums in the garden centre – White Nancy is a particularly beautiful variety with grey-green leaves and pale pink flowers, although it is grown mainly for its foliage.  Lamium maculatum is also very attractive and there are many varieties with flowers of white or dark pink, all of them good bumblebee plants.

One of my favourite wildflowers in this group is the bugle - Ajuga reptans.  Unlike the dead nettles it will not grow absolutely anywhere, preferring a soil that retains some moisture, but it is still easy to grow when it is happy in its spot.  It provides perfect ground cover for clay (usually surviving serious drying out in the summer), looks wonderful on the edge of a pond or in a bog garden and is also fine for shady ground cover as long as the soil is not too dry.  Its spikes of dark purple flowers attract bees and the occasional spring butterfly and the glossy, shiny leaves always look good.  It contrasts well with cowslips in damp grass, flowering at roughly the same time.  Garden centres and plant nurseries often have varieties of this wildflower with variegated or purple leaves, but I certainly prefer the plant in its natural form. It is not the easiest of wildflowers to germinate from seed, but cuttings root easily if they are kept moist and shaded.

The majority of the Labiate family have aromatic foliage and the woundworts have a very distinctive scent.  Many people dislike the pungent smell of hedge woundwort (Stachys sylvatica) while others love it.  I am one of the latter and plant it beneath the hedges that surround my garden.  There are several plants in this group that will meander happily in shade without spreading too rapidly and the hedge woundwort does that perfectly, growing to about 60cms in height.  Its attractive spikes of flowers are dark reddish purple with pale markings, almost like orchid flowers.  Marsh woundwort (Stachys palustris) is equally pretty and ideal for a pond edge.  The woundworts tend to flower over a long period from early summer late into September or October and can be propagated from seed or runners.  Betony (Stachys officinalis) is similar in shape and flower colour, but is happier in sun and will grow well in a wildflower meadow.  It is also well behaved enough to earn a place in a border.  It too flowers over a very long period and will germinate easily, although sporadically, from seed.  Brimstone butterflies will sometimes take nectar from this species.

Similar in form is the yellow archangel (Lamiastrum galeobdolon), another spreading plant that can be used for ground cover in shade.  This is often grown in the variegated form, which in my experience is much more invasive and difficult to control that the wild plant.  However the true wild form is hard to obtain and not terribly easy to grow from seed either!  If you like this plant, look out for it in friends’ gardens and beg a small piece as it is easy to grow from runners.  Its gorgeous spikes of golden flowers are ideal for providing a splash of colour under trees, hedgerows or tall shrubs.  Again, bumblebees in particular will visit it for nectar and pollen.

Labiate flowers come in all colours as we have already seen.  One of the most striking in terms of flower colour is the meadow clary (Salvia pratensis), now a rare wildflower.  This is one of those plants that has been adopted as a cottage garden flower and many garden centres will stock it or its varieties (sometimes under the name of Salvia haematodes).  The strikingly large flowers are a deep violet-blue and the plant reaches 60cms or so.  Pink and white flowered forms are also available and it is worth giving it pride of place in a wildflower or cottage border.

There are many other plants in this group worthy of a place in the garden.  The germanders, balms, hemp nettles and catmints are all worth a look.  Seeds of these are not easy to track down, but if you can find them give them a go and your local bumblebees are sure to be grateful.  Some also attract the occasional butterfly, but in general these flowers, due to the shape of their blooms, are bee plants.

Encouraging wildlife, especially bees, butterflies and other flying insects to more shady areas in the garden can be problematic as most good nectar producers are sun-lovers. Many of the Labiates mentioned are happy in shady spots, providing colour and wildlife pulling power in areas where we generally have fewer choices when looking for insect attractants.  Those that prefer sun, such as the meadow clary, are wonderful border plants.  In all there is something for everyone in this group, with more choices to explore.


© Text and photographs Jenny Steel 2017