Growing on at least three continents and available to forage even when there's snow on the ground, henbit (Lamium amplexicaule) and other plants in the Lamium genus are a too-often ignored wild winter food.
All Lamiums are in the mint family, and like other members of the Lamiaceae 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. The leaves have deeply scalloped margins. Henbit 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 tube.
Henbit and other dead nettles 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. Henbit likes disturbed soils and often shows up as a garden and farm weed.
L. purpureum, known by the common name red dead nettle, is a close relative of henbit that is just as winter-hardy, 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.
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 mild-tasting wild winter greens such as chickweed or cultivated leafy greens. Henbit holds up well to strong seasoning: garlic and/or ginger are good choices depending on the direction your recipe is taking. You can also use it to replace the spinach in Greek spanakopita recipes. Try this recipe for using henbit in a Wild Green Pasta with Creamy Wild Mushroom Sauce.
If you harvest just the top few inches of the stems of this species, you are in no way threatening the plant's survival. In fact, henbit will grow back even bushier and more tender if you harvest this way.
Leda Meredith is the author of Northeast Foraging: 120 Wild and Flavorful Edibles from Beach Plums to Wineberries. You can watch her foraging and food preservation videos, and follow her food adventures at Leda's Urban Homestead. Her latest book is Preserving Everything: Can, Culture, Pickle, Freeze, Ferment, Dehydrate, Salt, Smoke...and More.
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