Community News
Go Back
2013-01-17

In the Wild - Henbit- love it or leave it!

Photos by Lynn Post

In the world of gardening, henbit - aka Lamium amplexicaule - has both its detractors and defenders, and especially salient are comments from the website Dave's Garden.
A writer from California noted: "I find this little plant to be quite pretty, and the only thing blooming in my yard in February. I have no problem with letting it take over an area. The flowers are quite cheerful."
On the other hand, a Lone Star counterpart, who described henbit as "a very sneaky weed," added, "Within days you can have a huge patch of it taking over everything. I don't know if this can ever be eliminated from one's yard but one minor consolation is that it can be pulled in large clumps, thus giving one a sense of accomplishment - but don't be fooled. It's there forever!"
A gardener from Georgia asked, "How can it be contained, other than spending my entire summer pulling the stuff? Are there any herbicides that will kill the invasive beast and leave the Bermuda grass?"
Loath it or love it, once ensconced, henbit seems to stay.
This European native is a member of the mint family - and, as such, sports the familiar and distinctive square stem. Now firmly established throughout North America, henbit grows quite happily in lawns, cultivated fields, pastures, gardens, nursery plots, edges of yards and areas along buildings and railroad tracks, tolerating most soils and conditions. Henbit, however, exhibits a strong preference for disturbed areas. Although the mint does well in either dry or moist soil, it prefers a light dry soil and tolerates sun or shade, heat or cold.
The soft, finely hairy stems of this low-growing plant arise from a shallow taproot and can grow to approximately 16 inches. The stems have a tendency to sprawl across the ground, although new stem growth is more erect. The plant's oppositional rounded leaves have lobed margins.
Even in northern areas, henbit's pink to purple flowers appear very early in the spring, and, in warmer areas, hangs around for most of the winter and the early spring - often from February to November. Sometimes the reddish-purple flowers transform entire fields into large seas of pink before spring plowing.
The nectar and pollen of henbit's early-blooming flowers attract honeybees and bumblebees. While voles and box turtles munch happily on the foliage, Peter Cottontail shows little interest.
Attesting to the plant's propensity for providing an early season nectar and pollen source for bees, a contributor to Dave's Garden wrote: "Although in this early season, most pollen and nectar goes to feed new bees, if sufficient quantities of the plant exist it makes a very nice honey with just a hint of minty flavor." As a honey lover, I say, "Yummmmm ..."
As an added extra, the young leaves of henbit can be added to salads or used as a potherb. And, for what it's worth, herbalists and holistic healers use the plant as an antirheumatic, diaphoretic, excitant, febrifuge, laxative and stimulant. Regarding henbit's edibility qualities, The Encyclopedia of Edible Plants of North America states: "The leaves of L. album, L. amplexicaule, L. maculatum and L. purpureum are eaten raw or cooked in Europe and Asia. They are not aromatic, but have a pleasant taste and make good salad greens."
Regarding propagation, apparently this rather invasive plant grows easily from small pieces of its stem so whacking away at henbit only helps it spread. Not surprisingly, it also grows well from seed, which are described by one source as "brown egg-shaped nutlets with white spots."
When required, henbit can be sown in situ as soon as the seeds ripen or in spring. Under suitable conditions, the seed germinates easily in the wild at any time of the year. Presumably, seeds can also be found at local gardening centers.
But as one detractor from noted: "I can't believe anyone would pay money for this plant!"
Well, there you go.

(Sources: en.wikipedia.org, www.missouriplants.com, www.ppws.vt.edu, www.pfaf.org, www.illinoiswildflowers.info, www.sbs.utexas.edu, http://davesgarden.com and www.ipm.ucdavis.edu)