Henbit: Harbinger Of Spring

When it comes to the blush of pinkish-purple that one sees spreading across roadside fields or the edges of lawns in early spring, beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder.

By Marilyn Cummins | Photos By Notley Hawkins

The striking purple color is most often from the blooms of Lamium amplexicaule, a plant more commonly known as henbit or henbit dead-nettle, that grows in every U.S. state and Canadian province. Reactions to its presence may depend on whether it’s in your field or lawn, and whether you consider it a bane or a blessing.

To an artist, photographer, herbalist, urban chicken farmer, Southern crop producer or gardener with erosion issues—henbit can be a welcome sight in winter and spring. Other crop producers, and lovers of manicured lawns, are not a fan of the purple blooms.

A native to Europe and the Mediterranean, henbit came here with early settlers and liked what it found. As a cool-season winter annual/biennial, henbit emerges from seed in the fall, grows and stays green in the winter, blooms early in the spring, then dies back when temperatures rise.

Those qualities contribute to the love-hate relationship humans have with the plant. According to crop specialists at the University of Kentucky, henbit and other weedy species can play a positive role as winter cover in some cropping systems— not that they advise planting them. Until it’s time to prepare the land for the next field or garden crop, they say to let the plants grow and hold the soil in place.

The winter survival of henbit is not a good thing if the weed escaped fall herbicide treatments and is competing with a seedling wheat crop, for example. Unless you can till it under, it’s hard to kill once it’s blooming. The good news for homeowners who see it as an undesirable weed is that henbit is no match for a dense, healthy grass lawn.

There are those, however, who welcome the color after drab winter due to henbit’s other properties. As a member of the mint family, henbit is edible and is said to be high in iron, fiber and antioxidants. Enthusiasts enjoy its leaves brewed into tea, added to salads and sandwiches, and even as a poultice to treat burns and stings in a pinch. And, as you might guess from its name, henbit is a fresh treat in winter and spring for those chickens pecking around your backyard.