Stinging Nettles- Food and Medicine

The stinging nettles are just beginning to poke out of the ground here in the Pioneer Valley.  For many, these invasive plants are simply a nuisance- catching you off guard with their irritating sting.  Nettles, however are a powerful medicine to help us get through one of the other irritations of the Spring- allergies.

Historically, nettles have been used to treat inflammatory conditions, such as allergies.  This use has recently been backed up by scientific studies, which have shown that nettle preparations are effective at relieving symptoms of allergies.1  It has been hypothesized that the very sting that can make nettles the bane of our hike or garden work, is what makes them so beneficial at treating allergies.  The chemical compounds that cause the sting are contained in hair like spines.  These spines are as fragile as glass, and will break down in boiling water or in a blender.  So, it is very easy to neutralize the sting, and eat nettles without worrying about stinging your mouth!

In addition to the anti-inflammatory compounds, nettles are extremely mineral rich.  The minerals in nettle are highly bioavailable, which means that it is easy for your body to take in and utilize the minerals when you eat nettles or drink nettle tea.  The mineral rich nature of nettles make it a nutritious addition to your spring time meals.

There are many different ways to prepare nettles.  Below I will walk you through how to harvest and prepare nettles for cooking.  I will also share a one of my favorite recipe tips.

The Harvest

How to harvest: Harvesting nettles can be tricky business if you prefer, as I do, to leave without your arms and legs burning (though as a side note, the sting of nettles can be beneficial for joint pain due to arthritis and other rheumatological complaints.  This is because the sting acts as a counter irritant, depleting the neurotransmitters that signal pain in the body, so that after application, you can remain pain free for some time).2  To remain sting free, wear long pants- jeans are good, and a long sleeve shirt (something that is thick such as a sweater or a sweatshirt).  Gardening gloves are a must.

When to harvest: When the nettles are still young, and have not yet flowered.

Next, you need scissors and bucket or bag to collect the nettles.

Ok, now you are ready.  To harvest, simply snip the tops off the nettles and place them in your bag or bucket.

A note about wildcrafting: For wildcrafting (which is what you are doing when you are going out into the woods or the field to pick things to eat), it is important to take into account the local ecosystem and ensure that you are not depleting the population of what you are harvesting.  For nettle harvesting, we don’t need to be so careful because nettles are actually a moderately invasive species in this area, and we are doing our ecosystem a service by removing some of them. 

Preparing the nettles to cook

Before we eat the nettles, we have to make sure that they are clean, and that the sting has been neutralized.  Here is my favorite way to do this:

  1. Wash the nettles first with cold water in a strainer in the sink.
  2. Blanch the nettles in boiling water.

After you remove the nettles, you will see that the water is a nice green color.  This water is mineral rich, and contains the compounds from the delicate spines that are likely what makes the nettles beneficial for allergies.  Because you have washed the nettles first, this water should be free of dirt, and can be used in cooking or drunk as a tea. 

Nettle Recipe

Nettles can be used like any other green vegetable in stir fry, soups, casseroles etc… You can even put them on homemade pizza! One of my favorite ways to eat them is nettle pesto. I like to make up a big batch and freeze some so that I have the taste of spring throughout the year.

Nettle Pesto


2 cups stinging nettles, blanched and chopped (about 6 cups raw)
1/2 cup Parmesan
1/2 cup pine nuts, roasted
4-5 large garlic cloves, peeled
1/2 cup olive oil
1 tbsp lemon juice
salt and pepper, to taste


Blanch the nettles in boiling water for about a minute.  Strain off excess water in a salad spinner or strainer.  Strain into the pot with the boiling water to preserve the nutrient rich liquid.  It’s also a good idea to give the nettles one final squeeze to get all the water out.

Place the nettles in a food processor with the pine nuts, parmesan, garlic, lemon juice, spices and half of the olive oil.  Blend it up a little, and then put in the remaining olive oil.  Blend up to your desired consistency.

Enjoy your pesto on pasta, bread, crackers, mixed into rice of quinoa, as a garnish to chicken or other meat dishes, on salad- the possibilities are endless!

Alternative ingredients for folks with food allergies
I sometimes leave out the parmesan for folks with sensitivity to dairy.  You can add in half an avocado instead, which gives the pesto the creamy taste without the dairy.

Notes on preserving

I like to freeze the pesto to have it all year.  I typically freeze it in ice cube trays, so that I can have little single servings to add to dishes throughout the year.  After the cubes have frozen, you can pop them out of the trays and store them in bags in the freezer. I’ll also freeze some in ziplock bags.  You can put a few spoonfuls in a bag and then flatten it out before freezing.  This allows the pesto to thaw out relatively quickly when you need it.

Note: Because I typically don’t think too much about proportions when making nettle pesto- just make enough for everything I’ve harvested, I did a little internet searching to look for a recipe with good proportions.  The recipe above is adapted from the“Fat of the Land” blog.  I don’t have any connection to this guy, but was pretty impressed by the pesto and fiddlehead recipes: