Henbit: Top of the pecking order

by Green Deane

in Antioxidants, Beverage, Edible Raw, Greens/Pot Herb, Plants, Salad, Toxic to Pets/livestock, Vegetable

Henbit, brief salad green of spring

Henbit: Springtime Salad Green and More

It was a zig and a zag for me. I heard the name as an edible for many years and saw the plant often but never put the two together until one spring I was picking chickweed and saw this plant yet again and decided to look it up then give it a try. Now it is one of those great little edibles of spring.

Note heart-shaped scalloped leaves that grasp the stem

The henbit is a member of the mint family. If you remember from my first blog and my second video all mints that smell like a mint and look like a mint are edible, but they must do both. There are a lot of mints that do not smell minty, some of them are edible and some of them are not. In fact, some of the mints can make you ill.  Henbit does not smell minty, but it is an edible mint.  By they way, there are no poisonous look alikes. As for toxicity, we’re safe but it has causes “staggers” in sheep, horses, and cattle.

Its botanical name, Lamium amplexicaule (LAM-ee-um am-plex-i-kaw-lee) causes much confusion. As usual, there isn’t much problem with the species name, amplexicaule, which means “clasping” or in this case how the leaves grab the stem. It’s the genus name, Lamium, that causes problems. Most writers say it is Greek through Latin then define it to means a thin layer, plate or scale, or in this case the corolla tube between two lips. Unfortunately, that is not correct. And at this point remember that another common name for Henbit is Giraffe Head.

Edible Dead Nettle has triangle shaped leaves

“Lamina” is Latin, from which we get the English word “laminate.” It would be fine to say “Lamium” comes from the Latin word “Lamina.” But when you say it comes from Greek Lamium would come from a totally different word, “Lamia.”  “Lamia” was the name of grotesque creatures in Greek mythology and means “female man-eater.”  The little flower can resemble creatures, if you have an imagination.

The common name, Henbit, is like chickweed and comes from watching chickens liking it. They’re not alone. Humming birds like it, too, but for nectar, and Henbit can be used for erosion control.

Edible Ground Ivy has larger blossoms

Henbit can sometimes be confused with Purple Dead Nettle, above, which is also edible. The difference in the two can be seen in the leaves. Henbit has heart-shaped leaves with big scalloped edges that grow along the entire length of the stem. The Purple Dead Nettle (dead in this case means not stinging) has more triangular shaped leaves that grow in a big clumps. Both are very nutritious, high in iron, vitamins and fiber. The seeds of the Purple Dead Nettle, Lamium purpureum, (LAM-ee-um  per-PER-ee-um)  have antioxidants and presumably the L. amplexicaule would as well.

As an aside, I have a tenuous connection with Lamium purpureum. Purpureum is Latin for purple, and of course, was taken from a Greek word for a particular shellfish. In Roman times purple dye was extremely expensive, and only the royal family and senators and the like could afford it. It was expensive because the dye had to be collected from tiny saltwatershellfish in Greece, the porphyra. More so, only the miniscule anal gland of porphyra had the purple dye so it took tens of thousands of them to make enough dye to dye clothes. (It does make one wonder who noticed the purple color in the first place.)  In

Gythio, Greece, ancient exporter of purple dye

Gythio, in southern Peloponnesos, there still stands the little ruins where the Greeks made that dye thousands of years ago. It’s directly beside the main road into town from Sparta and would be dismissed as trash if not for the a little clearing and a sign. My ancestors are from that area. Who knows, maybe one of them crush some shellfish so some important person of the day could have a purple robe. In fact, my Greek family name can be poetically translated into “master gardener.” A more literal  translation is “Caesar of the Hoe.”  One linguistic factorid: Did you know “caesar means bald?” )
Henbit has been an esteemed vegetable for a long time. Their mild, sweet taste stands in contrast to the crisp leaves usually put in salads. John Gerard, the English herbalist for whom the Geradia is named, wrote of Henbit some 400 years ago: “The floures are baked with sugar as Roses are, which is called Sugar roset: as also the distilled water of them, which is used to make the heart merry, to make a good colour in the face, and to refresh the vitall spirits.”

Don’t confuse henbit with Ground Ivy, Glechoma hederacea, above left, which has much larger flowers.  It, however, is also edible is small amounts, raw or cooled, and the leaves are used for tea. Ground Ivy leaves are also made into aromatic sauces.

SPICY HENBIT

Chop four cups of shoots, cover with water, boil 10 minutes. In a separate pan melt three tablespoons butter, add one teaspoon curry powder, two whole cloves, and a quarter teaspoon of ground cinnamon. Stir and cook for one minute, stir in two tablespoons of flour and cook one more minute. Add a half a cup of boiling water from the Henbit, stir until smooth. Drain and add the boiled Henbit  and 3.4 cup sour cream. Cook on low for 15 minutes.

Green Deane’s “Itemized” Plant Profile

IDENTIFICATION: Multiple square stems from a taproot, to six to eighteen inches, purplish near bottom,  greenish near stop. above. spreads indefinitely in all directions, leaves opposite, hairy, scalloped, flower pale pink to purple to red, spotted on lower lip, no aroma, tiny purple hairs on the upper part of the flowers. Don’t mistake for ground ivy which is hairless.

TIME OF YEAR: Springtime in temperate climes, February and March in Florida, found throughout North America into arctic circle.

ENVIRONMENT: Waste ground, lawns, cultivated fields, pastures, roadsides, railroads, can created a bed of purple. Tolerates most soils and conditions.  Can grow under shrubs where grass won’t.

METHOD OF PREPARATIOIN: Young leaves, raw or cooked, added to salads or as a potherb. No poisonous look alikes. Stems and flowers are edible, too.

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{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Jeff March 19, 2012 at 05:25

I’ve finally located a rather large area of henbit.The deadnettle is everywhere along with wild onions.I can now make an edible salad on a hike and I’m only a month or sointo this but this spring has peaked my interest.The henbit is nice sweetish green and your videos and website are a great resource for info.
We also have alot of grape hyacinth and trout lilys popping up here in Missouri.Any ideas to incorporate those into a dish?

Thanks for your hard work and keep it up.

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2 Green Deane March 19, 2012 at 06:58

Carefully.

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3 name September 12, 2012 at 09:04

lamium was the staple green of mine two years ago. dryed, it keeps for years. easy to collect in quantity. great raw, in soups, and in plain cereals like grits. that summer, I offten ate a lunch of lamium, peppers, basil, dandilions, and sometimes a crawfish or bluegill. freely eat.

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4 Bryan H January 12, 2013 at 07:39

After reading this, I believe that it was Henbit, not Eyebright (euphrasia) that i found. Do you know the differences between the two? The plant i found had sizable, compared to the leaves, whitish hairs surrounding the stem. Tiny pink/purple vagina-esque flowers. This, eyebright and ground ivy are all similar.. Thanks DEANE!!

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5 Janet Short April 8, 2013 at 09:50

Eyebright flowers (Euphrasia officinalis) are typically more white w/fine purple stripes. The leaves are spiky & serrated, not scalloped. It is edible also.

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6 Not Telling January 22, 2013 at 22:09

Henbit grows all over my neighborhood, and I decided to look it up because I have always sucked the bit of nectar at the tip…also I am trying to eat more local, easily attainable foods. Does anyone have any ideas?

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7 Green Deane January 23, 2013 at 07:17

Sure, where do you live?

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8 Martha February 18, 2013 at 15:24

Henbit: it’s just now coming up along with the jonquils. I pulled some to bring to the computer to have access to make sure it’s henbit and not something else. It is. I washed a couple of the (still tiny) leaves and took a taste. They taste mostly like the dirt they came out of. Unless it improves as the plant gets some age on it, I’ll have to pass on this one.
mew

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9 Green Deane February 18, 2013 at 15:26

Henbit is usually sweet and crisp.

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10 LaDonna March 14, 2013 at 15:41

Is this edible for the whole life of the plant or should we stop at a certain point of maturity?

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11 Green Deane March 14, 2013 at 16:45

With greens young and tender is the common approach. There’s nothing wrong will the older plant but they get tough and woody.

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12 Sarah March 24, 2013 at 20:49

I’ve always wondered if there was a use for henbit. It grows EVERYWHERE and is one of the very first green things that appears in the spring. Yet I cannot wrap my mind around its edibility when I smell its musky, rank odor when broken or crushed. It is, indeed, the plant pictured as purple dead nettle, though some of it is not the purple color. Both have that sweetish, yet rank smell. Is it really edible? Could I cook it with onions and bacon grease like other greens, or would it need something to hide the ‘tang’ my nose says is there, like balsamic vinegar or loads of curry powder?

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13 Green Deane March 24, 2013 at 21:16

I don’t recall a rank ordor with henbit. As you sure it’s the right plant?

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14 Victoria March 26, 2013 at 20:44

My guinea pig loves the stuff. She gets a fresh edible weed salad daily. Even throughout the winter the plantain, dandelion leaves and henbit have kept her healthy and well.

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15 Skye April 11, 2013 at 10:41

Besides eating it, I have noticed honey bees foraging the flowers. I have flowerbeds full of it and am leaving my “wildflowers” in place for the bees.

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16 William April 14, 2013 at 14:28

Henbit is a member of the mint family. Unlike most mints it has a very mild none distinctive aroma. It is mild flavored, and the entire green portion of the plant, including the flowers, can be eaten. Later in the season strip the leaves of off the plant as the stems will get woody. It is easy to identify, but it does have a look-a-like called (Purple) Deadweed which is also edible. Henbit has square stems, and the leaves at the top are attached directly to the main stem, but the lower leaves have stems of their own. The entire plant is “fuzzy” and has s slightly prickly feeling. The Flowers arise from the leaf clusters, a small, pink maturing to purple with a trumpet shape, about 1/2 inch long and have2 petals that look somewhat like “pouting lips. If you smell a rank musty odor, you are most like mistaken about it being henbit. You can see a picture of henbit here. http://www.google.com/imgres?imgurl=http://www.greengrassok.com/Portals/127816/images/henbit%2520no%2520flower.jpg&imgrefurl=http://www.greengrassok.com/Your-Lawn/weeds—weed-control/henbit/&h=469&w=499&sz=48&tbnid=4F-8irWPsCtYcM:&tbnh=99&tbnw=105&zoom=1&usg=__ld2g3Kh7EeuBiRwPweWsctO4KdE=&docid=cTVJ9S9zjwCZsM&hl=en&sa=X&ei=ufRqUbqcJ8_gqAGEsIDwDw&ved=0CFYQ9QEwCA&dur=91 and a closeup of the flowers here: http://www.google.com/imgres?imgurl=http://www.greengrassok.com/Portals/127816/images/henbit%2520no%2520flower.jpg&imgrefurl=http://www.greengrassok.com/Your-Lawn/weeds—weed-control/henbit/&h=469&w=499&sz=48&tbnid=4F-8irWPsCtYcM:&tbnh=99&tbnw=105&zoom=1&usg=__ld2g3Kh7EeuBiRwPweWsctO4KdE=&docid=cTVJ9S9zjwCZsM&hl=en&sa=X&ei=ufRqUbqcJ8_gqAGEsIDwDw&ved=0CFYQ9QEwCA&dur=91

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17 Denise Miller January 12, 2014 at 12:41

Well. Do I feel silly. Picked henbit from the edges of my grandmother’s garden for tiny bouquets years ago; pull it out of my vegetable beds now because of the substantial root that forms later in the season (sign of a successful plant). Knew henbit was edible, but didn’t know that this was henbit. Grows beautifully in Coastal Texas all winter. Best of all, spinach is tough to grow here, but henbit gives it a real run for the money in taste and vigor.

Special thanks for the video including botanical terms and clear anatomical description. Plan to use the info to teach plant observation and identification to my middle school “Gardening with Science” class.

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18 Janet Short March 23, 2014 at 08:19

Blove this! I’ve tried to positively identify Ground Ivy for years and often confused it with the Henbit & Dead Nettle. Your descriptions and photos are invaluable. Ground Ivy, aka Gill-Over-the-Ground, is used for cough, asthma & other respiratory distress. Also used as external poultice for bruises & sore muscles. Really appreciate your website & will link to it as appropriate.

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19 Kirk Reamey April 6, 2014 at 21:48

I have been told that henbit is poisonous for chickens which is how it acquired its name. After reading the above, I doubt that it is poisonous to chickens. I would very much appreciate your comments and insights to this conundrum. Thanking you in advance.

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20 Green Deane April 7, 2014 at 07:00

It is not toxic to chickens. They like it hence the name.

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21 charles morrison June 18, 2014 at 09:56

Well well, the power of the internet and Henbit….
So we have this blue “weed” growing every where, and it’s very pretty. And we also have wild mint near bye…and we have a small homemade green house…and I just came back from Ecuador having dodged a terrible winter here in Maine…(this is all going some place).
So, as a rule, I don’t like to cut things down until I know what they are (might be useful)..so this pretty blue “weed” was everywhere, and had “invaded” my green house. Maine’s winter was on the run having been vanquished by Spring. The pretty blue “weed” has survived and was flourishing in our greenhouse…
I had fond memories of the humming birds I had just left in Ecuador (supposedly one of the highest concentrations in the world)…and one night I came home after dark and went to check the green house with my headlamp, only to find this huge moth beating against the plastic from inside.
Thinking it might be a Sphinx moth (my son had caught one as a child) I gently closed my rather big hands around it and took a peak at it before releasing it, only to be shocked and delighted to tears to find I was holding a very small green hummingbird which I then released to the night air (I hope it found it’s way home).
So now, fully a month later, before I was to cut down all of this blue “weed” (which bees seem to love too) I thought I should follow my dictum if knowing what I was cutting down first.
Eureka, your site identified it clearly as Henbit, and in the text states “humming birds like it for nectar”!!!! (clever little hummingbird).
and of further irony, I had brought back a very small curio hummingbird house from Ecuador which now hangs in the green house…I think it needs a “for rent” sign…
Glad I went to Ecuador, glad I built the green house, and soooo glad I read your site…
I shall make a point of leaving a good patch for our feathered friends who took the time to come all the way to Maine feed on our blue “weed”…. Thank you.
Chuck Morrison

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22 Green Deane June 18, 2014 at 12:38

Thank you for your kind words.

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