Harbingers of Spring
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Harbingers of Spring

Purple Dead Nettle

Harbingers of Spring

There are two varieties of Henbit around our habitat:  Common Henbit, Lamium amplexicaule and Purple Henbit Dead Nettle, Lamium purpureum. Common Henbit is a short, sprawling annual, bienniel, or perennial herb with four-sided (square) hairy stems. The specific Latin name “amplexicaul” refers to the leaves grasping the stem. In Latin, purpureum means purple, hence the name Purple Archangel or Red Dragon. The name, Lamia, from Greek mythology, refers to the grotesque and faces of creatures.  We prefer to imagine these as happy faces with great personality. Granted, it takes a strong magnifying glass to appreciate such character! 

 

Early Spring Bloomers

Common Henbit, Lamium amplexicaule, appears in pink, lavender, and violet colors.

The seeds of this low-growing plant are a tasty treat for foraging chickens, hence the name Henbit. Turtles and voles also love Henbit—in addition to a wide variety of hungry pollinators hunkered down in the grasses and plants. Truthfully, until this one event happened, I paid little attention to Henbit: The sun was shining on a cold and very windy day in early spring. (If you’ve ever been to NE Central Kansas, you know what I mean!)  From the kitchen window,  I spied something moving in the grass— an unusually early Black Swallowtail who was trying to dry its brand new wings, clinging desperately in the fierce winds to this plant covered with pink flowers —and slurping precious nectar. The 300 mm telephoto lens quickly revealed the rest of the story. Suddenly I understood certain things that are great and small, forever changing my attitude towards particular flowering weeds, such as Henbit. At that precious moment, there were no other nectar flowers available to provide sustenance for this pollinator, not even dandelions.

Lamium amplexicaule

When this photograph was taken, it was still chilly; there were no other nectar flowers in bloom other than Henbit. The nectar from these tiny flowers gave this new Black Swallowtail the opportunity to harden wet wings and survive.

Henbit is an annual herb of the mint family that has quite happily naturalized all across the United States from warmer climates in Eurasia and North Africa.

Member of the Lamium family of mint

Note how the leaves are whorled around the square stem, or petiole, and have spaces between the leaf clusters. Depicted here is Common Henbit, Lamium amplexicaule which is slightly different in appearance from Dead Nettle or Red Henbit which has clustered, fuzzier leaves across the top of the petiole.

As weeds go, this is a beneficial plant — even a nutritious and edible weed— but many commonly refer to Henbit as a “dratted weed” to be eradicated with sprays and/or yanked out of flower gardens. There was a time when I pulled it out, too. These days, Henbit stays put until the Delphinium pop up to provide ample food sources for the pollinators.

All parts of the Henbit plant are high in nutrients.

A nutritional powerhouse, all parts of Henbit can be eaten raw or cooked. Admittedly, we have yet to try taste sampling despite our ample supply.

 

Differences between Henbit species

Both Common Henbit and Purple Dead Nettle, or Red Henbit are easily confused as evidenced by my on-the-belly, closer look within using the Nikon 65 mm Micro lens on a tiny tripod. I simply could not see the differences until the lens took my eye into the flowers and leaves!

Henbit is found blanketing meadows, fields, along country roads, and has become an integral part of the flora—posing no threat to local ecosystems.

Lamium amplexicaule

As a late winter bloomer for our habitat, there are many benefits to allowing Henbit to grow. These tiny flowers provide crucial nectar and pollen for many early pollinators, especially hungry bees and butterflies, like this new Black Swallowtail and accompanying unidentified bug on the stem. These expressive blooming faces are our favorite harbingers of spring, soon to come!

Early pollinator food source

A prolific re-seeder—if our local chickens don’t gobble up all the seeds—Henbit will readily grow before early spring plowing, blanketing fields with a lovely sea of lavender, pink, and purple blooms.

Nectar and pollen source

Resources:

A Dictionary of the Flowering Plants & Ferns, J.C. Willis
Weeds, A Golden Guide from St. Martins Press
Field Guide to Wildflowers, Eastern Region, National Audubon Society
Wildflowers & Grasses of Kansas, Michael John Haddock
www.plants.usda.gov
www.kansasnativeplants.com
https://gardeningsoul.blogspot.com/2015/02/a-little-bit-of-henbit.html
www.en.wikipedia.org

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Authors: Kathleen Hird Kostner and Ricardo Kostner
©Hird and Kostner | Reproduction only with written permission from the authors.