Friday, February 10, 2017

Deadnettle and Henbit: two edible, medicinal herbal weeds of early spring


Left: purple deadnettle, right: henbit


Deadnettle identification difficulty: Novice
Henbit identification difficulty: Beginner

These two weedy wildflowers of early spring are very similar. They both have dark green leaves, bright pink/purple flowers with long necks, and grow low go the ground, no higher than 6" or so. Both somewhat resemble nettles, but neither have a sting. They frequently grow together, and are often confused for one another, so I thought I'd do a combo post about them.

Caution: deadnettle should not be taken while pregnant or trying to become pregnant.


This is purple deadnettle, Lamium purpureum. It's also known as red deadnettle and purple archangel, and it has a closely related variety, called spotted deadnettle, Lamium maculatum, whose leaves have white spots or patches.



This is henbit, Lamium amplexicaule, sometimes called henbit deadnettle. I've also found it in a white-flowered variety, which I'm having a hard time getting info about, so I can't tell you the Latin name, but I've tried it, and it seems to be perfectly edible as well. Nearly all mints are edible, so it's a fairly safe family to try in small amounts, before you move on to whole meals

white henbit

Both are wild herbs in the mint family, but don't taste like mints. Lots of our herbs are actually mints, including basil, sage and oregano. Like many other herbs, deadnettle and have medicinal properties, and can be used as a food and flavoring. Because deadnettle and henbit are closer to the wild, many feel that their medical qualities are stronger.

Identification 

Left: deadnettle leaves grow in opposite pairs, like a compass rose
Right top: flower shape is important to avoid poisonous similar looking plants. Also note hairs on leaves
Right bottom: squarish stems covered in fine hairs. 
Deadnettle has squarish stems and leaves that form in opposite pairs, and those pairs grow perpendicular to each other. So every 4 leaves form a compass rose. Deadnettle leaves are covered in fine hairs. 

Beginners should wait till deadnettle flowers before harvesting. Once the plants are flowering, there are no poisonous, similar looking plants in that small size. (Large plants, 8+ inches tall, with similar flowers can be dangerous). At maturity, the top leaves of deadnettle turn purple or purply green, and at this stage they have no poisonous look a like plants at all. Before flowering, deadnettle can be mistaken for many other plants. 

WARNING! This is a young foxglove plant, similar in appearance to pre-flowering deadnettle.
Notice the similar leaf texture and leaf hairs. Foxglove is poisonous. 

 Young foxglove image courtesy of Woodland Ways Bushcraft & Survival, part of their "Plants as self-defense" blog post. Click to check them out! 


Henbit, whole plant



Henbit is also easier to identify after it flowers. However, if you look at henbit's small size, coupled with its scalloped round leaf that attaches directly to the square stem, and has those "tufts" above  the leaf attachment, then you can safely harvest henbit any time of year. Though there are plants that share these features, none of them are poisonous.











Note henbit's square stems, and the leaves which atatch directly to the stem, with no leaf stem.
The leaves also have"tufts" above them.

Henbit and deadnettle flowers are very similar, but the leaves are quite different. Henbit had half-circle or fan-shaped leaves, with scalloped edges. On most of the plant, these leaves attach directly to the stem. Deadnettle has heart-shaped/spade-shaped leaves, and they attach to the main stem with a leaf stem called a "petiole". 



Veronica persica, commonly known as speedwell, has leaves that are similar in shape to henbit's,  but the flower is very different. Speedwell's leaves also attach with a leaf stem, called a "petiole". Speedwell is also edible, so you don't need to fear confusion. (It tastes different though)



This pretty little patch has both henbit and deadnettle

Eating henbit and deadnettle 

I use henbit and deadnettle interchangeably. They can be eaten raw or cooked, yet both have fine hairs on the stem (and on the leaves of deadnettle) which makes me prefer then cooked. Many people also add them to smoothies.

In terms of flavor, I think both have a richly green flavor, similar to fully grown spinach or baby kale. They have a slight herbal flavor too, a bit like mild oregano mixed with mild sage. I generally find I can use them anywhere I would use kale. 

I generally harvest deadnettle over henbit, simply because deadnettle is leafier, and gets you more food for the effort.



Medicinal qualities of henbit and deadnettle

Deadnettle, again, notice the long stems to the leaves
Henbit is excellent at digestive support, and can be used this way raw, cooked or brewed into a tea; it's also known to boost energy. Henbit contains compounds which can induce a fever, especially when brewed as a concentrated tea, so it's also good as a fever reducer, mild diuretic, and bloat-buster.

Deadnettle also offers strong digestive support, especially when used as a laxative tea. Like henbit, deadnettle also boosts energy. Deadnettle is recommended for women's menstrual issues, including pain, heavy flow, and discharge between cycles. For these reasons, deadnettle should not be taken while pregnant.




Nutrition and general info

Both henbit and deadnettle are extremely important to pollinators, especially bees, who have been dormant all winter. Because they flower so early (here in the south, they sometimes flower year-round), they provide early season nectar to jump-start the honey-making season. This makes it very important that you don't over harvest.

Henbit got it's name by being very popular with chickens, who will preferentially seek it out, if allowed to free range. It's very nutritious for them, and for us! Both henbit and deadnettle contain large amounts of iron, and vitamins A and C, they are also rich in fiber, and fair amounts of vitamin K.

16 comments:

  1. I read above in your post about Henbit that you found a white variety. Without seeing a picture of what you found I can not say for certain but I do believe that you have actually found Horehound which looks very similar and has white flowers. feel free to email me at gijane0105@gmail.com to share a pic of the plant or to get more info. Enjoyed reading your post!

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    1. Horehound is great, isn't it? Amazing medicinal properties, I really should do a post about it too. But the plant I found isn't horehound, but I'll send you a high res pic so you can see and let me know if it's something you're familiar with. Thanks!!

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  2. i have found a dead nettle pesto recipe...but i have oodles of henbit- can i use that instead? thanks!

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    1. Hi Momanita

      Sorry it took me a while to get back to you, I've been simply swamped.

      You ABSOLUTELY can use henbit for a pesto. It's one of my FAVORITE pesto herbs in fact, and I have a recipe for it in pesto specifically, if you're interested:
      http://foragedfoodie.blogspot.com/2017/02/henbit-pesto.html

      But if you already have a deadnettle recipe, I'm sure that would work great as well!

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  3. Hi, you write that dead nettle doesn't get taller than about 8". I have what i'm sure is dead nettle but most of it is already nearing 2' in height, and last year at flowering they were about 3'. I'm about to yank a bunch of it out of my flower garden and was going to make a salad... but you say there are identical plants which are poisonous? Can you please describe what to look for in order to identify the poisonous look-alikes? Thanks :)

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    1. Hi Agnes,

      No dangerous plants are "identical" very few plants are identical. However the sentence I was writing referencing was specifically for beginners. Beginner foragers are more prone to make mistakes, particularly because they are over-eager.

      The plant I was most concerned about with the warning is foxglove. Foxglove has a leaf-shape and texture that is very similar to dead nettle, the flower color is identical, and the flower overall shape is similar.

      The differences are that the flower on foxglove hangs down, and on dead nettle it (generally) points up, and that foxglove flowers come off a central stalk, not rising up out of the leaves.

      Still, I have seen people on Instagram ask about fox-gloves and if they are dead nettles. So I know there can be some confusion there. Foxglove only flowers when it's very large, so by telling beginners to avoid large plants, I was adding in a layer of safety.

      Foxglove is one of the most poisonous plants in temperate zones.

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  4. You mentioned there are poisonous deadnettle lookalikes, yet fail to mention any of their names. I've looked online and can't find any articles mentioning these either. The only other lookalike I've heard of is ground ivy/creeping charlie. Would you tell me of these supposedly poisonous plant I should look out for? You weren't very thorough.

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    1. I heard some edible plants cause hallucinations if you drink it in a tea, I want to know if that will happen if I decided to make henbit tea.

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    2. Also I would like to how to care for henbit if a made a garden, you know, water, sun exposure, temp, etc.

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    3. HI Delve, sorry about the delay, I must have missed the notification on your comment. I came here when I saw Agnes had asked a similar question, and saw that you had asked several weeks ago.

      The main plant I am concerned about creating confusion is foxglove -- one of the most poisonous plants in temperate zones.

      Where I wrote about potential look similar species, I was speaking specifically for beginners. Beginner foragers are more prone to make mistakes, particularly because they are over-eager.

      Foxglove has a leaf-shape and texture that is very similar to dead nettle, the flower color is identical, and the flower overall shape is similar. The stems are also "square-ish"

      The differences are that the flower on foxglove hangs down, and on dead nettle it (generally) points up, and that foxglove flowers come off a central stalk, not rising up out of the leaves.

      So by waiting till the plant is large and flowering, one can avoid the potential harm of foxglove.

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    4. Anonymous,

      Nothing negative will happen if you drink a henbit tea. I have done so myself, and it has a very mild, herbal flavor--like a mild vegetable broth.

      As for care, henbit does best in full-sun, less so in partial sun and will even grow in partial shade. Like most weeds, you shouldn't have to water henbit, as long as it hasn't been drought-level dry.

      Henbit is an annual, but as long as you let some plants go to seed, it should re-seed itself and return next year.

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    5. Hi again Delve

      If you get the chance, you will see I've updated the post with an image from a friend of a young foxglove plant for comparison.

      Thanks!

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  5. HenoftheWood, I appreciate your post and find them to be concise, filled with valuable information and fun to read. I did want to share a quick tip (which I still use myself) for the novice who knows Henbit and Purple Dead Nettle, but has trouble getting the right name to the plant. Dead Nettle is also known as Purple Archangel, and when you look down on the leaf, it does look like angel's wings.By comparison, when you look down on the leaves of Henbit, her leaf looks like a fluffy hen with her wings stretched out. I have foraging friends who still get tongue-twisted at times. My little trick keeps me one ahead ;)

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    1. Oh that's awesome. I generally use the common names I grew up with on my site--which is why I call it deadnettle. But I had heard people call it archangel, and I never knew why. Thank you! I will try and get better pics which show these leaf-shapes as an angel and a hen

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