By Susan Belsinger
The first spring wildflowers, herbs, and weeds are popping out all over. Two that frequently appear together are both members of the mint family, Lamiaceae: dead nettle (Lamium purpureum) and henbit (Lamium amplexicaule). Since they often grow in a patch together, are about the same height, and both have bright green leaves and purplish-pink flowers that bloom at the same time, at first glance, they are often mistaken as the same plant. However, held side-by-side and inspected a bit closer, they are very different in appearance. Similarities also include how and where they grow. Their early spring blooms are some of the first food for honeybees, and the tubular shape of their flowers attract hummingbirds.
Both of these spring harbingers prefer sunny spots where the land or garden soil has been disturbed, along roadsides and in meadows and lawns, and will tolerate some shade. They are often found growing side-by-side and intertwined together in patches in moist, fertile soil. I’d say that they grow anywhere from 8-to 12-inches tall, sometimes being the same height in a group together, though occasionally the henbit stretches just a little bit taller than the dead nettle. The henbit is a bit rangier and will even sprawl along the ground, whereas dead nettle is upright.
Harvest unsprayed, tender spikes early in the season—both the leaves and flowers are edible— and be sure of the correct identification of the plants before you eat them (dead nettle has some look-alike plants before it flowers). Both plants are easy to identify once they bloom. I find that many of our weedy harbingers taste green and earthy; I get strong mineral flavors from nettles and henbit similar to chickweed. Although they are members of the mint family, there is no mint to their flavors. If the stems are tough, then I remove them; if tender, I often add them to my Wild Greens Salsa Verde recipe (see below) since it will be pounded or pureed.
Wild, edible greens are powerful, good food and offer a variety of flavors for free; they are nutritious and usually high in vitamins and minerals. In Europe, the gentle word “potherb” is given to wild greens that offer the knowledgeable forager herbs for the cooking pot. Both of these plants can be eaten raw in salads, sandwiches, wraps, and salsas, or cooked in soups and sauces, or combined in a mess o’ greens with other potherbs or green leaves like kale, spinach, chard, tat soi, etc. I prefer to combine them with other greens rather than eat them in quantity on their own.
Dead Nettle (Lamium purpureum)
Sometimes called red nettle, purple nettle, and even purple archangel, it is thought that this is called dead nettle because its leaves resemble stinging nettle (Urtica dioica), though they do not have the stinging characteristic of Urtica. Spotted nettle (Lamium maculatum) is closely related, however its leaves have whitish spots or blotches.
The foliage of purple dead nettle is wrinkled and hirsute (hairy), and the edges of the heart-shaped leaves have rounded teeth. The leaves grow opposite one another on their noticeably square stems, mostly on the lower stem and at the top (leaving the center stem bare), where they overlap and give the appearance of being overcrowded. Foliage is a medium, bright green although depending upon growing conditions, the leaves clustered at the very top are often purplish-red in color. It is quite attractive against the dainty, single, tubular, lavender-pink flowers. Beginning foragers might want to wait to harvest when the plant is in flower—that way there is no mistaking it for another plant.
In doing research on the medicinal aspects of dead nettle, there are many actions listed: antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, astringent, diuretic, diaphoretic, purgative, and styptic. Since it has astringent and styptic qualities, the fresh leaves are recommended for external wounds or cuts. Tea from the leaves is purported to aid in digestion and is used as a mild laxative. It is also used for women’s issues for heavy menstrual flow and cramps. Caution: dead nettle should not be taken while pregnant or trying to become pregnant.
Henbit (Lamium amplexicaule)
This plant is often mistakenly called dead nettle (L. purpureum). I’ve read that henbit gets its name because chickens like it and seek it out, though I am not sure about that—the chickens that I know don’t pay it much attention—though they have lots of other plants and insects to forage. While dead nettle has petioled leaves (little leaf stems attaching the leaves to the central stem), henbit’s lower leaves grow on short stalks, and the mid-to upper, ruffled and scallop-edged leaves appear in a half-circle, clasped around the square stem.
I love how Billy Joe Tatum perfectly describes the flowers of henbit in Billy Joe Tatum’s Wild Foods Field Guide and Cookbook: “The tiny flower buds look like beet-colored velvet beads, as small as a pinhead at first. As the buds open you see silken purplish flowers with long corollas, looking like Jack-in-the-pulpits in miniature.” Often upon close inspection, the tiny flowers are pale pinkish inside with deeper-colored spots; each flower turns into a four-seeded fruit.
Henbit’s properties are somewhat similar to those of dead nettle and include: anti-rheumatic, diaphoretic, diuretic, febrifuge, laxative and stimulant. Henbit has been used to support good digestion, whether consumed raw or made into a tea, and has also been used to reduce a fever.
To prepare foraged greens:
To quickly capture the best flavor and nutrients, bring the greens to the kitchen as soon as they are harvested. Assemble a salad spinner or washing bowl, a cutting board, and the compost bucket. Run one gallon of water into the spinner or bowl. Add about 1/4 cup distilled white or apple cider vinegar to the water.
Methodically pull the tips or tender leaves from the stems. Pinch off leaves with yellow edges, or brown or black spots. Place the edible parts in the vinegar water as you work and submerge the mass in the water, plunging up and down several times to loosen foreign matter. Let the greens soak in the water for several minutes and the grit will fall to the bottom of the container. Lift them out and drain them. Discard the vinegar water and spin or pat the greens dry. Use fresh or cooked. If not using all of them, wrap them in a kitchen towel and store in the crisper drawer of the refrigerator for a few days.
Wild Greens Salsa Verde
(Makes about 2 1/2 cups)
This traditional green sauce goes well with any type of vegetable, whether it is grilled, steamed, oven-roasted, or crudités; it is also good with simply-prepared meat, chicken, fish, and pasta, or even tortilla chips. Vary the herbs that you have on hand or what is in season. When I can, I make this a wild green sauce by adding whatever I can forage: dead nettle, henbit, sorrel, chickweed, dandelion greens and/or flowers, purslane, lambs’ quarters, violet leaves, field cress, monarda, wild onions, or garlic. You can fill in with any seasonal greens from the garden if need be like parsley, fennel fronds, cilantro, arugula, spinach, etc. Sometimes, I add other ingredients—about 1 tablespoon of capers, a chopped boiled egg, or a handful of nuts, like pine nuts, walnuts, or pecans. The sauce can be made without the bread; it just helps to thicken it a bit.
1 1-inch slice country bread, crusts removed
3 large garlic cloves, slivered
About 1/2 cup olive oil
About 3 to 4 cups of mixed edible green leaves, picked over, washed and spun dry
1/4 cup minced sweet-tasting onion
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Soak the bread in a little water for 10 minutes, then squeeze most of the liquid from it. Add the bread and the garlic to the mortar or food processor and pound or pulse to coarsely chop.
Rough chop the greens. Add them a handful at a time, and pound them in a mortar and pestle or chop in a food processor. Use a little olive oil to loosen them.
Add the olive oil to the herbs as if making a mayonnaise, a few drops at a time, blending or pulsing to incorporate.
When most of the oil has been added, blend in the onion and vinegar. If you want to add capers, nuts, or a hardboiled egg, now is the time; pulse or pound to mix. Season the sauce with salt and pepper, and taste for seasoning. The sauce should be a little thinner than pesto—add a bit more oil, vinegar, or even a bit of water if need be.
Let the sauce stand at least 30 minutes before using—that way the flavors will develop and meld. Adjust the seasoning and serve at room temperature. The olive oil will not emulsify completely; a little will remain on top of the sauce. Store any leftover sauce in a tightly-covered glass container in the refrigerator for up to a week.
Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.
Susan is a culinary herbalist, food writer, educator, and photographer whose work has been published in numerous publications. She has authored a number of award-winning books. Her latest book, The Culinary Herbal: Growing & Preserving 97 Flavorful Herbs, was co-authored with the late Dr. Arthur Tucker. Susan is passionate about herbs and her work, sharing the joy of gardening and cooking through teaching and writing, and inspiring others to get in touch with their senses of smell and taste.