Taking a Bite of Henbit

“Look at all that chickweed!” I said, as I finished showing the neighbor the ginormous patch of chickweed just waiting to be gathered. He pointed to the patch next to it and asked, “Is that one edible?”.

I glanced at it. Green leaves, vertical growth, pink flowers popping out between the layers of leaves. “I don’t know.” I told him, “But I can find out.”.

I circled the edge of the fence and came around to my front door, and went in the house. I got on the computer, and searched for “pink wildflower”. Then I went back out to memorize the features of the flower in question. Right by my door – vertical growth, green leaves, pink flowers popping out between the layers. I looked it over. Rounded scalloped leaves. Square stem. The leaves formed little pagodas up the stem, each layer smaller than the last. A spray of buds and fluted blossoms on top, and more blossoms between each layer.

Rather pretty, actually.

I went back in, to look at the search results. It took a while. But eventually I found it.

Henbit. A fairly aggressive weed that can fill entire fields with a splash of purplish color in the spring. I went back to the search engine and put in “henbit”, and dug through more descriptions and images, just to confirm and make sure of the identification. No question, there wasn’t anything else exactly like that!

I searched “henbit edible”. Sure enough. Oh, not one of the more popular wild edibles in your ordinary “I eat a few weeds around the farm” type person, but very commonly consumed among rabid wild foragers (I use that description with the utmost respect!).

Henbit on the left, Purple Dead-Nettle on the right. Purple Dead-Nettle
does not always have reddish leaves at the top.

I learned how to distinguish Henbit from Purple Dead-Nettle. People talked about the differences exhaustively, explaining the differences in the leaves, the colors, the blossoms, the arrangement of the leaves, etc. To me, the difference was simple once I saw a good picture. Henbit has rounded scalloped leaves. Purple Dead-Nettle has pointed scalloped leaves. The shape of the leaves is distinctly different. The rest of the differences may vary depending on how they are raised, the stage of growth, etc. But THAT is distinctive in each. Once I recognized Henbit, I knew for sure it WAS Henbit, and not Purple Dead-Nettle. Not that it mattered all that much, since both are edible, but I like to be certain.

I also searched the medicinal properties. Just to make sure that it did not have something that would aggravate any of my known issues. In fact, it sounded like a good match for some of them, so I gathered a little from around the door and front of the house.

Henbit is fairly chewy. I like it boiled for about 5 minutes, or sauteed in butter and garlic. When added in with spinach I can’t really tell the difference, except it takes a little more chewing. I have also eaten it in a salad – takes even more chewing. Flavor is unremarkable – just sort of green. Texture a little rough. Not hairy. I am not fond of hairy.

Over the next few days, I experimented with it and a few other discoveries.

Then today, Kevin brought home the rabbit hutch he’s been working on. He had to drop it off and then head off to do some work in another location before lunch. He and the driver dropped it off… right in the big bed of chickweed.

Just about the time I ran out of henbit on this side of the fence.

After the rabbit hutch was moved, I wandered over to survey the damage, and see if I could gather a bit of henbit to mix with dinner.

There was the chickweed – sadly crushed, but rallying. And right beside it… NOT Henbit! Purple Dead-Nettle! I recognized it even though the leaf color was green to the tops, without the characteristic red or purplish blush on the top leaves (that comes with full sun – I have long known that reddish colors in plants tend to come out with sunlight, and these were in the shade of the fence). I did do another net search to make sure that my assumption about the red color was correct, prior to using any.

It is called Dead-Nettle because it does not sting, like Stinging Nettle. Dead-Nettle is not really a nettle, rather, it is a member of the mint family, as is Henbit. Both have square stems, characteristic of that family of plants.

The leaves are fuzzy. Try as I might, I could do no more than nibble a single leaf, just to say that I had. The flavor had a bitter edge underneath, but was otherwise an unremarkable anemic green flavor. Based on how it is described by other people, I suspect the flavor may be affected by how and where it is grown. I can’t quite manage that much fresh fuzzy, so this is something I will be using only as a pot herb, or pureed to bits in a smoothie.

I had some in a smoothie later, and it imparted a bit of vegetable flavor to the drink, but was not strong enough to isolate a particularly identifiable taste.

There is less said about the edibility of Purple Dead-Nettle than about Henbit. The hairiness of the leaves seems to put people off, except for die-hard foragers.

I do like the blossoms though! They are a valuable nectar source for bees in the early spring (as are Henbit blossoms), and they taste lightly sweet. Of course, gathering  just the blossoms for anything more than a scattered garnish would be unbearably tedious. They were fun to pull out and taste though.

It was kind of cool to find the Purple Dead-Nettle, and to instantly recognize what I had not recognized mere days before – that we had two different, but very similar plants growing on opposite ends of the fence. And to recognize now that they only look similar when one is not paying attention. Once I examined them to identify the first one, I could no longer mistake the two. It took only a close look to see the many differences.

Even though I don’t consider it a choice edible, it is nice knowing that I can use it if I need, and trying it has given me an idea of what to do with it to make it tasty and enjoyable if I do have the need.

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