How to Make Wild Stinging Nettle Pesto

april 23, 2023

Urtica dioica, otherwise known as stinging nettle, is one of my favorite herbs to wildcraft in the springtime. After a long winter feasting on warm comfort foods, there’s nothing better than a fresh stinging nettle pesto.

Stinging Nettle Pesto

Your impression of stinging nettle may differ based on how you were introduced to them. Some folks may meet nettle by accident, shocked by the sudden sting after simply grazing against them. Other folks (like myself) didn’t grow up around stinging nettle, and sought them out intentionally. This was the first herb I wildcrafted in the beginning of my herb journey.

Benefits of Stinging Nettle

Stinging nettle is an incredibly nutritive and restorative plant that many folks enjoy incorporating into their diet. It has been used to relieve symptoms of arthritis, eczema, seasonal allergies and fatigue. It is incredibly rich in protein, minerals and vitamins – including iron, calcium, magnesium, potassium, Vitamin K, Vitamin C and Vitamin A.

The leaves and stems of nettles are covered in tiny hairs called trichomes that release formic acid when touched. The result is a stinging, itching, numbing sensation that can last anywhere from hours to days. Many view this plant as a powerful ally in creating and maintaining boundaries. Yes, stinging nettle is incredibly good for us. And while it will share its benefits with us, not without sacrifice. 

Stinging Nettle in Fairy Tales

I am always delighted when I find herbs tucked away in fairytales and myths. Stinging nettles plays an important role in Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, The Wild Swans. The story is of a young woman named Elisa; sister to 11 brothers who were turned into swans by their evil stepmother. 

In order to save her brothers, she must weave 11 tunics out of stinging nettle with her bare hands. And she must remain silent through the entire journey, or else her brothers will face certain death. In the end, Elisa does succeed in weaving the tunics and saving her brothers – right before she faced death herself! 

This tale teaches us that sometimes it takes courage and sacrifice to achieve the things we want most in life. Sometimes we face uncertainty and sometimes we feel pain. As much as we find those things undesirable, they are a part of life and must be experienced if we seek to live a full life. 

Stinging Nettles

Harvesting Stinging Nettle

This fairy tale is one of the reasons I harvest some of my stinging nettle with bare hands. As a Taurus sun and moon, I sometimes get a little too stuck in seeking only what comforts me. The sting is a reminder that sometimes I need to get out of my comfort zone to grow. Also, studies have shown there is some benefit to allowing the nettle to sting your skin, including a reduction musculoskeletal pain.

Just because I harvest without gloves does not mean you need to as well! If you are not yet familiar with this plant, or the reaction you may have to its sting, I highly encourage you to use gloves and scissors.

Stinging nettles thrive in damp, well fertilized soil. I often find them in the woods by a stream or creek in full or part-sun. In the Pacific Northwest, you can easily find them in parks or along hiking trails starting in April. 

A few things to keep in mind when harvesting:

  • Make sure you have permission to harvest
  • Make sure this area has not been sprayed with pesticides/herbicides
  • Make sure there is enough nettle! (It should look like no one harvested from this spot by the time you are finished)

Never take the entire plant! A nettle pesto is best made with the spring tips of the nettle plant. So pinch or cut about 2 or 3 sets of leaves from the top. Make sure to cut right above the petiole of the leaves that will remain. This will allow the plant to focus its energy to branch out and continue to grow.

How to Make Stinging Nettle Pesto

Many nettle pesto recipes will tell you to cook the nettle leaves first – but I strongly disagree with this method. Pesto is best made with fresh leaves! And while fresh nettle leaves may sting, it’s tiny stinging hairs are dismantled once crushed. I assure you that no sting will remain once you have made this nettle pesto – and it will be more full of nutrients!

Nettle Pesto

Almost all pesto recipes include the same basics – a leafy green, nuts, parmesan cheese, garlic, olive oil, salt and pepper (and maybe a squeeze of lemon juice!). Everyone has their own little twist based on their preferences. 

This year, I added a special ingredient to my nettle pesto, which is a nettle seed salt I wildcrafted last autumn. Nettle seed is an adaptogen and helps support our nervous system as we enter into a season of high stress. With the nonstop creative energy of spring, I definitely need the support! I also love the idea of incorporating the full life cycle of the nettle plant into my pesto – from spring leaves to autumn seed. Don’t worry if you don’t have nettle seed salt – regular salt will do!

Below is my tried and true stinging nettle pesto recipe. Let me know if you try this recipe and what you think! Also, don’t be shy about changing up the recipe a bit. There are lot of greens you can substitute if you don’t have access to fresh stinging nettle!

Stinging Nettle Pesto

How to Make Wild Stinging Nettle Pesto

Print Recipe
Prep Time:15 minutes
Cook Time:5 minutes
Total Time:20 minutes

Equipment

  • 1 Food processor
  • Mason jars

Ingredients

  • 2 cups packed fresh nettle leaves
  • 1/4 cup parmesan cheese
  • 1/4 cup walnuts (you can substitute with almonds, pecans, or even sunflower seeds)
  • 2 cloves garlic (adjust to taste)
  • 1/3 cup olive oil
  • 1/4 tsp nettle seed salt (or regular salt)
  • 1/2 tbsp lemon juice
  • pepper (to taste)

Instructions

  • Add all ingredients in a food processor or high-speed blender and blend until it reaches pesto consistency.
  • Transfer into mason jars (I prefer to use 1/2 pint jars) and refrigerate or freeze.

Notes

You can keep in the refrigerator for up to one week. I tend to make a lot of pesto at once, so I freeze the extra jars to make sure I can preserve it until I need it.
Servings: 1.5 cups

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