Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

Nettles and turkeys

Posted on by royvickery |

Before the discovery of antibiotics young stinging nettles (Urtica dioica) were regularly mixed with food for young turkeys (Meleagris galopavo) in an effort to keep them healthy.  For example, according to a note received from Lenamore, Co. Longford, in April 1991:

Back in the 1930-40 period people who reared flocks of turkeys used to feed them with nettles.  They put an old stocking on their hand, took a knife and went out to the fields to cut nettles; some people even cut them by the sack full.  They made a pot of Indian Meal gruel (maize).  Then the nettles were chopped fine. My aunt used to take a big handful in her bare hands and squeeze them (this way they didn’t sting) and cut them up with a sharp knife.  Then they were put into boiling gruel and stirred around.  When the mixture was cooled it was thick and the nettles were cooked.

However, in Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel Ruth, first published in 1853, it appears that nettles were considered harmful to turkeys.  In chapter 3 Gaskell describes the misfortunes which befell her heroine’s parents following their marriage, these ‘were of a more important kind than the death of a whole brood of turkeys from getting among the nettles, or the year of bad cheeses spoiled by a careless dairy-maid’.  According to the explanation provided by the editor of the Penguin Classics edition of the work (1997),  professor of English at the University of Salford, ‘turkeys have a simple digestive system, unable to cope with highly fibrous plants like nettles’.

If this is true it would appear that young turkeys benefit from being fed on young stinging nettles before their fibres develop, but older birds are killed by eating older, fibrous, plants.

Comments would be appreciated.

Image:  Tooting, London Borough of Wandsworth; August 2017.

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