Giant Himalayan Stinging Nettles, SAVIOURS of VILLAGES - Nepalese government not interested!

This remarkable plant warrants greater efforts to encourage planting on a LARGE SCALE in and around villages in Nepal.  And following the recent earthquakes and awareness that the country is prone to earthquakes, measures that can be taken to reduce the impact of landslides are of major importance.  They should, as a PRIORITY, be propagating this valuable plant and plant-out in suitable locations. It is something which local villages can be involved with themselves, having the not inconsiderable advantage of incurring little or no cost with there being the bonus of products to be made by weaving its fibres leading to income being generated for WOMEN in villages.  The villagers would be doing something positive.  Many Nepalese living at elevations of 1700-3000m are already familiar with the plant, which occurs naturally in wasteland, shrubberies & edges of cultivation, so it is not a matter of introducing a strange, alien species, which may end up doing more harm than good.

© Chris Chadwell

It has been recognised for some time that the 'Giant Himalayan Stinging Nettle' (GIRARDINIA  DIVERSIFOLIA) has a tough root system which helps bind soil and prevent soil erosion - which has long been a serious problem in many Nepali Villages.  It can grow on slopes and poor soils not suitable for cultivation of crops, indeed appears by itself around some abandoned yak herders huts. 

It should be viewed as a valuable crop as the fibres within it (which I understand to be the longest in the plant kingdom) can be woven into many products, which can be sold (even the head-bands for the bamboo baskets worn on backs, which for centuries have been the main means of transport of goods in Nepal (pack animals are not generally used in the way they are in the Western Himalaya).  As it is the women who do the weaving, any sales go into their pockets.  The world over, money which is controlled by women tends to be MUCH BETTER SPENT - not least in the poorest communities.  There is even the bonus that the plant is utilised in religious ceremonies and its weaving maintains traditional skills and traditional way-of-life -  so it really is a WIN, WIN situation. Men, too often waste money on alcohol, smoking, gambling and so on - yes, alcoholism is a major problem in developing countries.

A typical clump of the 'Giant Himalayan Nettle' in light forest. © Matthew Chadwell

Yes, the sting is much more severe than with the common nettle (Urtica dioica) in the UK! © Matthew Chadwell

Various NGOs, particularly women's group,s have been involved in weaving workshops and attempts to market and sell GIANT NETTLE PRODUCTS, without the "middle-men" who take to high a proportion of the profits.  Whilst this has been admirable and some progress made, inevitably most of the products have been aimed at the 'green'/'eco-friendly' market, such as young female student tourists visiting Nepal.  This cheap-end-of-the market, has its limitations.  And I must be blunt, with no criticism intended or condemnation intended, anything which is perceived as associated with "hippies" is not always taken seriously. PLEASE NOTE THAT MY REMARKS ARE PRAGMATIC NOT IN ANYWAY AN INDICATION THAT I DON'T ADMIRE SOME OF THE IDEALS BEHIND 'GREEN MOVEMENTS' - AS A RELATIVE OF MINE, HELPED FOUND CND, THE CAMPAIGN FOR NUCLEAR DISARMAMENT, I AM NOT 'ANTI' SUCH SENTMENTS BUT WHAT MATTERS IS 'MAKING THINGS HAPPEN'.  I am sure other uses could be found for this amazing plant; I know of valiant attempts to market higher-end fashionable shawls knitted from the fibres - which appear lace-like.  We just need some inventive individuals to 'exploit' its potential for the benefit of Nepalese people.

© Chris Chadwell

The late Peter Wallington (in whose memory I delivered a series of lectures to raise funds for The Britain-Nepal Medical Trust, in the 1990s, see: Peter was first stung by this GIANT HIMALAYAN STINGING NETTLE in September 1972 where it grew to 3m around abandoned yak herders huts at 2700m in Eastern Nepal, becoming wary of it during the remainder of his travels in the Himalaya. It will penetrate thick Denim Jeans like a knife through hot butter.  He subsequently described it as a VEGETABLE ROTTEWEILER.  The young leaves are edible, leaf form is quite variable.  He found it quite a dramatic looking plant and even quipped that if you had a problem with burglars, they would require total body armour to penetrate a thicket of these plants but did warn that those with young children should not grow this plant as it would give them a very severe sting!  In case anyone is concerned as to the dangers of introducing such a plant into British gardens, it is tender, such that any proper frost should rapidly dispatch it.  But as with ANY plant introduction - IF it appears to be growing TOO well, one MUST be cautious, acting responsibly to destroy it, just in case.

Nevertheless, the seed of 'Giant Stinging Nettle' is easy to germinate and grow-on, so propagation by seed is a viable method in Nepal, to help build up stocks in mini-nurseries or garden plots for planting in villages. I am due to visit Nepal this September and shall through my own present contacts see what initiatives I can set-in-motion but would WELCOME suggestions/contacts with NGOs working in Nepal who like the idea of encouraging more planting of this nettle - and also contacts with Nepalese who wish to encourage their government to promote this project.  I could certainly help produce well-illustrated MANUALS covering seed collection, germination, establishment of young plants, with simple instructions in clear NEPALI, which could be laminated and distributed to villages. Local school children could be involved in the sowing and growing on, ensuring the participation of the younger generation, as I suspect much of the present-day knowledge of the uses of this plant are with their grandparents generation. Cultivation workshops could be held to train field-workers who could visit remoter villages to demonstrate the techniques.  Since it could be grown (perhaps it already is as a 'weed') at the National Botanical Garden at Godawari, near Kathmandu (Department of Plant Resources, Ministry of Forests and Soil Conservation, Government of Nepal) a demonstration plot could easily be established there.

There have been many articles and publications written about 'ALLO', as it is known in most parts of Nepal.  There are even websites promoting its use.  I shall draw readers attention to the best of these in the coming weeks but a coordinated, concerted effort is required, which requires these charities coming together and hopefully, encouragement at a government level as well.  It makes sense to BRING TOGETHER what is already know and the experiences of local people in different parts of Nepal, so that lessons can be learnt and the traditional knowledge and expertise of Nepalese respected; they should be FULLY involved.  This is something so many 'projects' set-up by well-meaning foreigners, fail to do. Any project which is going to succeed in the medium to long-term MUST take its time.  Too often, artificial targets are set to demonstrate/provide evidence of what has been achieved after the first year, second and then often the funding and project is finished.  Surely, it takes the first year or two for an intelligent APPRAISAL to be undertaken.  This is a better way of doing things....