Henbit and Deadnettle

In late winter and early spring, many of our fields and yards turn purple as the henbit and deadnettles start to bloom again. Photo credit: John D. Byrd

In March, backyards and fields can turn purple when viewed from a distance. The source of this purple hue are species in the genus Lamium. Our most common Lamium species are purple deadnettle (L. purpureum), henbit deadnettle (L. amplexicaule), and henbit (L. maculatum).

Henbits and deadnettles look similar. Both have square stems, similar-shaped purple flowers, and are relatively short. I think the easiest way to tell them apart is by the fact that the deadnettles have dark purple or reddish leaves at the top of the plant, often above the top flowers. Henbit lacks the purple or reddish leaves. Often people will refer to all of them as either henbit or deadnettle regardless of which one they really are. Heal-all is another name that is commonly used for all of them.

Deadnettles and henbit are native to Europe. They were introduced to the U.S. where they have naturalized and become extremely widespread. Some people gather and eat henbits and deadnettles. Other people use the deadnettles, and sometimes henbit, as a groundcover to take advantage of the plants’ tendency to spread and form large expanses of early spring color. Some nurseries even sell Lamium cultivars specifically as ground covers. However, most people view henbit and deadnettles as yard weeds, much like dandelions.

Close-up of henbit. Notice the lack of reddish purple leaves. Photo credit: Andrey Zharkikh 
Close-up of deadnettle. Notice the reddish purple leaves. Photo credit: dw_ros

Like dandelions and clover, henbit and deadnettle bloom when the weather is cool and moist. As the heat of summer arrives, they’ll fade back until the weather cools off again in the fall. In the early spring, the henbit and deadnettle in my yard can be a buzz with half a dozen to a dozen different pollinator species. Because they bloom so early and often grow in large numbers, henbit and deadnettles are considered an important early source of pollen and nectar for honey bees, native bees, wasps, flies, and many other early pollinators.

This article was part of Shannon’s original Kentucky Pollinators and Backyard Wildlife blog which evolved into the blog for Backyard Ecology.

Backyard Ecology: Exploring Nature in Your Backyard
Nature isn’t just “out there.” It’s all around us, including right outside our doors. Hi, my name is Shannon Trimboli, and I am the host of Backyard Ecology. I live in southcentral Kentucky and am a wildlife biologist, educator, author, beekeeper, and owner of a nursery specializing in plants for pollinators and wildlife conservation. I invite you to join me as we ignite our curiosity and natural wonder, explore our yards and communities, and improve our local pollinator and wildlife habitat. Learn more or subscribe to my email list at www.backyardecology.net.

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