Henbit, also known as “deadnettle,” shows up as a weed in the wild but is actually a mild leafy green that holds up well to seasoning.
There are a few distinctive features of this plant, but the simplest are the tubular, purple-pink flowers.
Photo by Leda Meredith
Inexpensive, fun, and yielding delicious results, foraging for local, natural plants is gaining popularity across the nation. Experienced foraging guide Leda Meredith has written The Forager’s Feast (The Countryman Press, 2016) to break down everything you might need to know about the sensation. Learn to identify edible plants in the wild, how to harvest them without harming the growing plant, and try some original recipes while you’re at it!
You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: The Forager’s Feast.
Lamium amplexicaule, L. purpureum, and other edible Lamiums
These common weeds grow on several continents and have the virtue of being able to withstand fairly cold temperatures. Henbit is a reliable forage, even during winter in most places.
Henbit likes disturbed soils and often shows up as a garden and farm weed. It is a common plant in city parks.
All Lamiums are in the mint family, and like other members of the Lamiaceae family, they have square stems (roll a stem between your forefinger and thumb and you’ll feel the four distinct sides) and opposite leaves (the leaves attach to the stem in aligned pairs).
The leaves of both henbit and other edible, similar-looking plants in the Lamium genus (all of which share the unfortunate common name deadnettle) are 1/2 to 2 inches wide and can be oval-, spade-, or heart-shaped. “Deadnettle” refers to the fact that their leaves look like stinging nettle leaves, but the plant doesn’t sting. The leaves have deeply scalloped margins. L. amplexicaule leaves attach directly to the stems, and the upper leaf pairs can appear at first glance to be one round leaf surrounding the stem. Other Lamium species have short leaf stalks, but the leaf shape is similar. The deep veins give them an almost quilted appearance. There are hairs on the leaves.
The pink or purple flowers grow in whorls in the leaf axils (where the leaves join the stems). The petals of each small flower are fused into a 1/2- to 2/3-inch-long tube.
L. purpureum, known by the common name red deadnettle, is a close relative of henbit that is just as winter hardy and widespread, and has similar uses in the kitchen. As its species name suggests, its leaves are tinged with a reddish-purple color. This is especially true at the tops of the plants. The leaves do not clasp the stems the way those of L. amplexicaule do.
Henbit and other deadnettles are low-growing plants. The lower stems sprawl on the ground and can root where they touch soil. But the last few inches of the stems usually grow upright.
Harvesting just the top few inches of the stems of this species in no way threatens the plant’s survival. In fact, henbit will grow back even bushier and more tender if you harvest this way.
Lamium plants may be in the mint family, but they don’t taste anything like mint. Rather, they are relatively mild leafy greens that can be eaten raw or cooked.
I think henbit and other Lamiums are best when combined with other mild-tasting wild winter greens such as chickweed, or cultivated greens like kale or chard. Henbit holds up well to strong seasoning: Garlic and/or ginger are good choices depending on the direction your recipe is taking. Or try the mushroom-henbit match in this pasta recipe: Henbit Noodles with Mushroom Sauce Recipe.
Reprinted with permission from The Forager’s Feast: How to Identify, Gather, and Prepare Wild Edibles by Leda Meredith, published by The Countryman Press, a division of W.W. Norton & Company, 2016. Buy this book from our store: The Forager’s Feast.
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