Nettle lore (and recipe!)

In the Pacific Northwest, the verdant spring has sprung, and the clearest tell-tale sign of this is the emergence of Stinging Nettles or Urtica dioica. I know they get a bad rap as a prickly, rash-inducing weed to avoid. Still, when approached with care, they are an edible, medicinal, and delicious spring green you can incorporate into your seasonal cooking repertoire. Here’s some info about the traditional uses and health benefits of nettles, as well as one of my favorite family recipes for enjoying this nutrient-packed forest-foraged food.

Identification: Nettle is a perennial herb, meaning it grows back every year—the goodness keeps on giving! Nettle grows 1-6’ tall in clumps or large stands in the sun or shade in moist woodlands, streambanks, disturbed areas, and along forest margins. Its leaves are opposite, have toothed edges, are wider at one end and taper to a point on the other, and are generally 3-6” long and 0.5-1.5” wide (although I’ve seen some that are wider). Flowers droop in clusters from the leaf axils and bloom in late spring and summer (once they do, don’t harvest nettle for food or medicine). There are two native subspecies across North America, gracilis in more Eastern zones and holosericea in more Western zones. The dioica subspecies is native to Europe and naturalized across North America. The glandular hairs on the stalks and undersides of leaves give nettle its sting.

Uses: Native Americans have historically used Nettle for food, medicine, cloth, and cordage, and those uses continue today. To eat nettles, they must be cooked to remove the sting. They can be used instead of cooked spinach or kale in any recipe or served as a side dish by themselves.

Medicinally, nettle has many uses. It is a general spring tonic and nutrient-rich plant that improves the health of various body systems, including blood and bones. It is one of the highest botanical sources of iron. Nettle is effective for allergic complications such as allergic rhinitis, seasonal allergies, food allergies, sinusitis, and allergic conjunctivitis. An infusion can be used as a hair wash to stimulate hair growth. Nettle is effective against joint pain and acts as an anti-inflammatory for osteoarthritis when used as a cream or in fresh leaf applications.

As a fiber, dried nettle stalks can be made into cloth, twine, rope, sewing fiber, and for weaving and knitting. Around the PNW, Coast Salish and Interior tribes use the fiber for making fish nets, snares, and tumplines. Nettle also produces a dye for coloring basketry materials.

Harvesting and Processing: For culinary or medicinal uses, harvest the tender greens in early spring with care to avoid their sting. Forage in clean areas free of chemicals. Harvest the leaves before the plant flowers; older plants develop particles called cystoliths that can irritate the kidneys. Wear gloves to protect your hands. The “sting,” caused by formic acid, causes an itchy, burning rash that usually decreases within a few hours. If you get stung, wash the area with soapy water or rub mud on it and allow it to dry before washing it off. Cook the top ~8” (~20 cm) and use as you might use cooked spinach or kale; nettle’s stinging effects are diminished after the plant is cooked, crushed, dried, or chopped. Dried leaves store well for later use in tea; dry them in a warm, shady spot or a paper bag. To make tea, steep a tablespoon of dried nettle leaves in 1 cup of freshly boiled water for at least 15 minutes. The longer you steep the nettle, the more nutrients are extracted. For cordage and fiber uses, dried stalks historically were crumpled by hand or gently pounded with a stone to free the inner fiber from the woody part of the stalk.

Other Notes: Considered an invasive, weedy plant, nettle is often eradicated from the landscape because of its sting and spreading nature. However, it indicates high soil fertility and provides cover for small animals and birds. Nettle is highly nutritious and is thus gaining a reputation as a “superfood.”

Recipe: This is a recipe for spinach pies, like spanakopita, for which I substitute nettles for spinach. Thanks to Margie for passing down the recipe!

You’ll need these for the filling:

~1 brown paper grocery bag half-full of freshly harvested nettles (the original recipe calls for 1.5 lbs. fresh spinach; see harvesting tips above for safely foraging nettles) – lightly steam the leaves, press out the excess liquid, chop if large, and put in a bowl

8 oz. feta cheese, crumbled

8 oz. jack or provolone cheese, cut into small cubes

1 bunch green onion (or two leeks), chopped

8 oz. mushrooms, quartered

1 zucchini, cut lengthwise then sliced

2 Tbsp. olive oil

2/3 cup bread crumbs (I use gluten-free breadcrumbs)


You’ll also need:

4 sheets 13x9inch puff pastry (I used gluten-free phyllo dough)

1 egg, beaten with 1 Tbsp. water



  1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
  2. Sautee the green onion, mushrooms, and zucchini in the olive oil in a skillet until soft and lightly cooked through.
  3. Mix all of the filling ingredients in a large bowl.
  4. Cut each sheet of dough into 6 squares. Spoon 1/12 of the mixture (or however much reasonably fits) onto each square.
  5. Take opposite corners, pinch together, and twist. Same for other corners.
  6. Brush each with egg wash and arrange on greased cooking sheet.
  7. Bake for 25-30 minutes until golden. Let cool. Serve warm or room temperature and enjoy!


Let me know if you make these yummy nettle pastries and if you come up with any creative ingredient alternatives worth sharing! Happy nettle-eating!



Selected Bibliography:

Gendron, F., and R. Karana, L. D. Cyr, and M. P. Ferreira. “Immunomodulatory Ethnobotanicals of the Great Lakes.” In Polyphenols in Human Health and Disease, 453–61. Elsevier, 2014.

Moerman, D. E. Native American Ethnobotany. Vol. 879. Portland, OR: Timber Press, 1998.

Gallagher, J. Stinging Nettles the Super Food? Learning Herbs.

Pojar, J. and MacKinnon, A., eds. Plants of the Pacific Northwest coast. Lone Pine Pub., 2004.

Turner, N. J., and Hebda, R. J. Saanich Ethnobotany: Culturally Important Plants of the W̱SÁNEĆ people. 2012. Royal British Columbia Museum.

Rayburn, K., E. Fleischbein, J. Song, B. Allen, M. Kundert, C. Leiter, and T. Bush. “Stinging Nettle Cream for Osteoarthritis.” Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine 15, no. 4 (2009): 60–61.

Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe. “A Selection of Pacific Northwest Native Plants Traditional and Modern Harvest and Use.”

Koros, S. Northwest Coast Basketry. Teachers Guide to Basketry. Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture. 2001.

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