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By now, most every garden club has held programs on butterflies and host plants that attract them. Those living jewels that flutter from flower to bud, down to the muddy pools they drink from, seem worth anything to bring into the landscape. I thought so, too. But now, I’m refining my approach after tangling with an herb that should be strictly left out of any garden. “Beware of the Stinging Nettle” should be a refrain that echoes through the mind of any gardener.

“Burning” or “Stinging Nettle” is advertised as a butterfly attracting weed, an herbal hair rinse, an “energizing nettle bath”, or even as a tea served with elderflowers, lemon balm or a slice of citrus. Don’t do it. Be wise: stay strictly away. I share this advice after nearly three years of burning pain in my hands and arms that will not go away, and for which there is no cure.

This is the back-story. Three summers ago, I moved back to Connecticut. The house I bought had a landscaped, but neglected yard on the edge of a wood. The garden beds, if you could call them that, were full of a 10-14 inch green plant with oval, hairy leaves with serrated edges, arranged along the stem like a mint. Seedlings were liberally represented beneath them.

Did I look them up in a book? No. Eager to start my perennial garden, I plunged my hands in and began clearing them out. They are quite juicy when crushed, and the liquid flowed up my arms and on my legs as I kneeled. I spent hours pulling. They were ubiquitous after a moist spring and early summer.

The day after my first weeding, I woke up with arms, legs, and hands bright red and burning. No water, ice, soap, lotion or other emolument would quiet the burning. I treated it like poison ivy. No change.

At that point, I went on the internet and identified the nasty weed that had attacked me. In German, it’s called “Brennnessel” (burning nettle), and in English, “Stinging Nettle.”

Several months later, after three trips to the doctor, multiple heavy-duty cortisone shots, lotions, medications and soothing baths, the redness and oozing sores disappeared. The burning did not. Three years later, the burning still crops up when my hands get dry. Apparently, the tiny hairs embedded themselves and will not come out. As I move, they burn.

Herbals will tell you that nettle can be found in any lot with moisture, disturbed, nitrogen-rich soil. Woodland clearings, fertile fields, riverbanks, gardens and meadows are their favorite spots.

I say, “Leave them there!” Do not introduce them into your yard under the misguided impression that you are aiding butterflies. Otherwise, for your efforts, your children, grandchildren, friends, pets, and visitors may brush up against them and suffer for years to come. Let the butterflies use the ones in nature!

So how do you deal with nettle?

A gardening friend, who is also a medical doctor, devised a safe way to remove nettle, if you find it in your yard.

Liberally apply hand cream to your hands and arms as a protectant. Find two of the oblong plastic bags newspapers are wrapped in. Slide one up each arm, sticking your fingers through the plastic at the closed end of the bag. Your fingers will go through and anchor the bag. Put on two pairs of medical gloves (latex or plastic), one over the other, on each hand. Then don your gardening gloves.

Watching that the nettle, or its juices, do not touch any skin on your arms or legs, start pulling. Check your gloves periodically to make sure they are holding up. Change them if you find punctures. Seal the nettle in a plastic garbage bag and dispose of it in the dump. Do not put it in compost, as the hairs continue to infect any soil they come in touch with.

After removing all nettle from an area, always garden with the plastic glove/garden glove combination on your hands. The hairs remain for years in your soil, and can be just as damaging when bare hands come in contact with the dirt as they were on the plants. And please, please remember, “Always…beware of the Stinging Nettle.” Never be so foolish as to share it with a friend.

Janet Spaulding

Disclaimer: These thoughts and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of this organization.

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After years of dire reports about the decline of the monarch butterfly population, fans of this gorgeous insect now have at least a glimmer of good news: monarch numbers may once again be on the rise in Connecticut.

An annual one-day butterfly count conducted by volunteers in the Farmington River Valley sighted 63 monarchs on July 22-23 – the highest total since 2008.

Two years ago, the Connecticut Butterfly Association’s count found no monarchs at all, and just eight were spotted in 2016.

“It’s very good news,” Jay Kaplan, a member of the butterfly association who participated in the most recent Farmington River Valley count, said of the number of monarchs spotted. “But this is just one year,” he cautioned.

“You can’t go on a one-year total and think everything is great,” said Kaplan, who is also director of the Roaring Brook Nature Center in Canton. “This could be a one-year blip.”

The butterfly association’s annual count has been happening for 20 years and covers the same 15-mile radius covering all or portions of Avon, Simsbury, Canton, Farmington, West Hartford, and Burlington. Kaplan warned there is no way of knowing if this year’s count was an anomaly, or the start of a trend indicating the striking orange-black-and-white butterflies may be starting to recover.

Kaplan can recall times several decades ago when naturalists could see hundreds of monarchs migrating past on a single day. And reports from the monarch’s “overwintering” sites in northern Mexico for 2016-17 haven’t been encouraging.

The dramatic decline of this colorful creature has conservationists worried, because the monarch is considered an “indicator species” of the health of our environment. State and federal officials and environmental groups across the U.S. are campaigning to help save the monarchs.

At the Kellogg Environmental Center, volunteers are participating in a long-running effort to monitor monarch numbers and reproductive success. Jenny Dickson, a state wildlife biologist, said Connecticut’s environmental agency is now “looking at how we can manage habitats to make sure they are a lot more monarch friendly.”

Major national efforts are being made to plant or preserve more milkweed and other native plants along the monarch’s migration routes. Milkweed is considered a key food source for monarch caterpillars, and plans call for planting hundreds of millions of milkweed in the next few years.The Kellogg Center study covers “a couple of acres” of fields in neighboring Osbornedale State Park, according to Susan Quincy, an environmental educator at Kellogg.

They also record the temperature in direct sunlight and shade, record the stages of growth on the caterpillars they find, note the density of milkweed plants, count any adults, and check for a type of aphid that feeds on milkweed and deters monarchs from laying eggs.

Many scientists believe the monarch’s decline is the result of factors that include loss of winter habitat, climate change, and agricultural practices involving pesticides, herbicides and genetically modified crops that have significantly reduced the butterfly’s natural food sources, primarily milkweed.

Monarchs migrate thousands of miles every year, reproducing as they travel, from the northern U.S. to spend the winter in a small area of sheltered mountain valleys in Mexico. In the spring, they fly north. During their northward migration, a monarch will typically live two to six weeks, but monarchs born in late summer can survive through a winter to start the next year’s migration north.

In 2016, a study published in the journal Scientific Reports reported that the past two decades have seen the eastern monarch butterfly winter population plunge by 84 percent, down to perhaps 33 million.

The study by a team from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the U.S. Geological Survey warned that there is now a “substantial probability” that the eastern monarch will go extinct unless this decline can be reversed. The fear is that the monarch may be headed toward “quasi-extinction,” a term experts use for a species when there are too few individuals left to ensure reproduction.

“This is a species we are watching very closely,” said Jenny Dickson, a wildlife biologist at the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

Monarch butterflies are not on DEEP’s threatened or endangered species listings for Connecticut. But Dickson said those lists are scheduled to be updated in the next couple of years, explaining that her agency will be evaluating the local and regional status of the butterfly and ways to help it.

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