Monday, April 15, 2024

Henbit Deadnettle

The fields are rife with a purple flower that humans seem to have a love-hate relationship with. The Henbit! Having originated in Africa, Asia, and Europe it made its way into North America, most likely hitching a ride with immigrants preparing to arrive in the new world looking for a new way of life. Leaving the only home you’ve ever known and going somewhere completely new, and potentially dangerous can be frightening as well as exciting. What better way to bring a piece of home with you than to tuck some seeds away for the journey with the hope they will like their new home, adapt, and grow, For early settlers, they relied heavily on plants for curing all manner of ailments, and the Henbit was often a part of these natural medicine cabinets.

This important herb goes by many common names including Greater Henbit, Common Henbit, Henbit Deadnettle,  and my personal favorite Fairy Horn. The name Henbit comes from ancient observations that chickens favored this plant in the spring as some of the first available greens.

While often mistaken for the plant deadnettle, it is scientifically different, even though both plants share the same family as mints. These cousins of the wildflower world often grow and bloom together, making identifying them difficult for many. The name deadnettle is in reference to the fact this plant does not produce stinging hairs on its leaves like Common Nettles do.

Henbit is a small plant reaching heights of four to eight inches and a spread of up to sixteen inches with soft fine hairy stems. When thousands of these plants bloom in unison it often seems as if the purple color extends for miles.  It goes to show there is strength in numbers. The flowers range from pink to purple and are a beautiful sight after a long, dreary, colorless winter. Henbit is capable of self-pollination, mainly because pollinators are not very active when Henbit first blooms, which is typically late winter and early spring, and continues into June if the weather conditions are right. Henbit prefers moist, shady locations, once things heat up the Henbit dies back and takes a rest until fall. They propagate by seed and each plant can produce up to two thousand seeds. They can also spread by producing a root at the base of the stem that reaches the soil and starts a new plant. The seeds germinate in autumn and sprout soon after as late as November. When winter's freezing temperatures begin, henbit will die back and then in February and March, they begin to grow. Occasionally germination takes place in the spring as well.  If weather conditions are not conducive to germination the seeds can remain viable in the ground for up to ten years, waiting for the proper growing conditions to return.

Once in bloom they often become the bane of farmers, gardeners, and homeowners who find their fields, gardens, and yards overrun with Henbit. Do these individuals experience a mixed bag of emotions or at least a tad bit of remorse for this plant that they are on a mission to kill? Do they see a beautiful wildflower or just an ugly weed? In some states, they are classified as invasive, and in other states, they are pretty much ignored and left alone as their beauty, edibility, and willingness to grow where many plants couldn’t survive, as well as providing erosion control all equal a plant that is more beneficial than troublesome. Their presence is appreciated, and they are permitted to grow when many other weedy wildflowers are not. Henbit has been a part of North America's landscape for so long that it is considered naturalized and is an important component in a meadow ecosystem. In full bloom, early pollinators wake up on warm days and explore their surroundings, and finding henbit is a welcome sight. Honeybees, Bumblebees, and other early spring risers will gather nectar and help pollinate the flowers that have not closed up and decided to take the task of pollination on themselves.

Early settlers valued Henbit and with good reason, there are numerous medicinal qualities attributed to this plant as well as being edible. All visible parts of the plant above ground are edible and safe to consume.  It can treat fevers, boost your immune system, act as a diuretic, and is shown to reduce anxiety in many individuals. It is used in soups, on top of salads, and as a tea. Careful though, consuming too much may find you in the bathroom. Henbit is high in iron, vitamins A, K, and C. This high vitamin C component provides us with a healthier immune system to help ward off those late winter illnesses that seem to plague us all in February and March. Even though Henbit is related to plants in the mint family, they do not have a distinct mint flavor. Instead, their flavor is described as somewhat peppery, yet a tad sweet with a taste of celery or kale. I personally have never tried it, but I plan to the next time I eat a salad.

On the fun side, Henbit is nature's Kazoo. Pick a flower and gently blow in the end of it like blowing on a bugle. It will send out a loud, kazoo-like sound. It is rumored if the stars align just right, the sound of the Henbit kazoo will summon the Fairy King and he will grant you a wish. We could all use a wish granted right? If nothing else, the sound can be used to announce your location if you find yourself lost in the timber seeking those allusive morels.

Just like for most things in nature, humans will look for and find a negative, and with this newfound knowledge will do everything in their power to destroy it. Henbit definitely falls into this category. Many years ago, before no-till became so popular among farmers, most farmers managed to coexist with Henbit. When fields were turned over, it often destroyed much of the Henbit before it had a chance to germinate in the fall or early spring. No-till planting, while helping in erosion control as well as other things has also changed the way we control plants many consider to be weeds, and that control comes in the form of chemicals. Because of the fuzziness of the leaves, it is often difficult for one chemical, like glyphosate to kill Henbit, therefore broad spectrum glypohsate needs to be used along with additional chemicals like Dicamba. The more chemicals we apply to the ground, the more contaminated our food and water supply become. In many cases, because of its early growing season and early death when things heat up, the shallow root system rarely interferes with the growth of agricultural crops as they are just beginning to peek their tips above ground after the Henbit has departed. Yes, it can be an alternative host for corn earworm and other pests of crops, but these situations are not as common as one would be led to believe. Yes, information is out there about the growth of Henbit interfering with winter wheat, rye, and other cold-weather crops. There is no exact science to back this up. Most studies that have been conducted are not in a controlled setting. A study done by the University of Missouri claimed Henbit caused a 13% reduction in wheat yield. The study was flawed though, only areas with heavy densities of Henbit growth were planted with wheat, and no other plant was counted in the survey, just Henbit. We know Henbit prefers areas with high moisture or low spots in a field, which would have a natural effect on wheat yield. This was also not considered. Also not considered were the other plants present that would have an impact on yield like deadnettle, cheatgrass, and wild oats. To do a study like this correctly you must deliberately plant Henbit in one plot, keeping it excluded from another area of similar soil conditions, and sow wheat in both plots, then compare the yield in both plots. This was not done, instead, areas with high densities of Henbit were blamed for low wheat yield. While it is easy to jump to conclusions, that is not scientific evidence to support cause and effect.

In some things, we should consider accepting the bad with the good and not be so quick to judge a plant by its cover. Henbit is a natural herb with culinary and medicinal qualities. It provides fodder for livestock and wildlife grazers, as well as seeds for many types of birds. It is great for holding moisture in the ground for many crops that require it and provides erosion control. Not to mention you can summon the Fairy King to grant you a wish!

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