Clearly a pioneer plant, the fuzzy, square-stemmed weed in the picture seems to spring up as soon as I turn my back on any clear patch of dirt. I pull fistfuls of these plants out every time I weed. Since I’m curious about what is in my yard, I sent my husband to work to ask a co-worker botanist. The weed is a purple deadnettle (Lamium purpureum) an extremely common mid-latitude plant in the mint family, along with oregano, lavender, chia and up to 7200 others. They are called deadnettles because they don’t sting like nettles, in fact they aren’t even related to nettles. In 1649, the English herbalist/astrologer Culpeper wrote this about deadnettles: “they grow almost everywhere, unless it be in the middle of the street.” – certainly true in my yard.
This annual herb seeds germinate in the fall when the soil reached the right temperature and is among the first to flower in the spring providing early nectar to bees. They have a pretty flower of a zygomorphic pattern (I had to look up zygomorphic, it just means mirror symmetry, like a sweet pea, as opposed to radial symmetry, like a daisy, the other option for flowers). Although they are tiny, the mauve flowers have purple spots and stripes that are striking.
where did they come from?
Apparently, the Roman brought not only roads to Northern Europe but also the weeds to grow through the cracks!
Like so many other plants, they didn’t originate from my neighbourhood. The first mention of purple deadnettles on North American shores was from 1859 (Darlington). Presumably, seeds hitched a ride with other plants that were imported at the time as I can’t think of a reason to import them on purpose. From their origins in the mountainous regions of Southern Europe, purple deadnettles have spread into most temperate regions of the globe.
Since they are in my yard, can I eat them?
Like every other herb I look into, purple deadnettles are listed as a cure for all sorts of things. A recipe to cure chills listed deadnettles infused into a tea and sweetened with honey. I’ve seen it listed as a useful salad addition and abundant in iron, vitamins and fibre. Unfortunately purple deadnettles isn’t listed in its own section in my ‘Edible Wild Plants‘ book, but it is referred to in the henbit (Lamium amplexicaule) section as a related edible species. The book says there are no poisonous look-alikes, so I decided to try it (these ones came from my yard, so I know nothing has been sprayed on them).
Years ago I took a wilderness survival course where I had to survive in the woods for a week on what I could find or catch. The purple deadnettles reminded me of the fireweed I ate a lot of that week – listed as good for me, but flavorless with a weird texture (there is a good reason why purple deadnettles and fireweed aren’t available in grocery stores). To get around the fuzzy texture, some people include a few leaves in the smoothies, but I think I’ll continue with what I’ve been doing with the plants – put them in the compost pile. I’ll file away the edibility of these weeds just in case of an apocalypse.
Culpeper, N. 1649. Culpeper’s Complete Herbal. Reprint, 1975. London: W. Foulsham. 430 p.
Darlington, W. 1959. American Weeds and Useful Plants. New York: A. O. Moore. 460 p.
Defelice, M.S., 2005. Henbit and the Deadnettles, Lamium spp. : Archangels or Deamons? Weed Technology, 19 (3), 768-774