December 2016 update: I think the winter annual I have been identifying as henbit (Lamium amplexicaule) may be purple deadnettle (Lamium purpureum) instead.
Weeds of the Northeast calls purple deadnettle and henbit similar species. They describe the upper leaves and square stems of purple deadnettle as being conspicuously red. They also write that the leaves of purple deadnettle are more triangular and less deeply lobed than henbit. That description of the leaves in particular makes me think the weed I’ve been calling henbit is actually purple deadnettle. I won’t know for sure until the winter annual weeds start to grow and bloom next spring and I have the much needed opportunity to strengthen my observational skills.
Purple deadnettle and henbit are both members of the mint family although they do not smell like mint. Their leaves are supposedly edible and are reported to be high in iron. I have not tasted them. As with chickweed, chickens like henbit. Both purple deadnettle and henbit are early season sources of nectar and pollen for honeybees.
Both purple deadnettle and henbit have fibrous root systems, as can be seen in the photo above, which make them relatively easy to pull in moist soil. The stems are square, which is characteristic of the mint family. Henbit’s leaves on the lower stems are petiole leaves, meaning they have stalks. The leaves higher up are sessile, or stalkless, and clasp the stem. Amplexicaule, as in henbit’s botanical name, means clasping. Purple deadnettle’s leaves, on the other hand, all have petioles, but they are shorter on the upper leaves than on the lower. I thought the upper leaves in the photos below were sessile, but perhaps they have short petioles. This distinction is what I have to look for next spring in order to figure which is what. Do I have both purple deadnettles and henbit in my garden. Or not.
Henbit is sometimes called dead nettle too. Dead meaning that it doesn’t sting. Vita Sackville-West, in a collection of her columns about the gardens at Sissinghurst Castle in Kent titled The Illustrated Garden Book, preferred every kind of nettle to be dead and eradicated, adding that she also preferred her gardens to be weedless and tidy. Me too.
On the other hand, purple deadnettle is sometimes called red henbit. Oh, help. It’s confusing.
Henbit is also called giraffe head, supposedly because the tiny dark pink flowers resemble the heads of giraffes. I’ve looked and looked and never been able to see anything remotely resembling a giraffe until, glory be, I looked at the photo below and saw a giraffe head. What do you know. Cute, don’t you think. But wait. if this is purple deadnettle, then I shouldn’t be seeing giraffe heads. Perhaps the lesson here is that if I have to work so hard to make an identification, maybe I’m trying to identify the wrong weed. Duh. So frustrating.
Most of the purple deadnettle, or henbit, in the garden is in areas that are still under development–the old apple tree area after the apple tree was uprooted in a fall snow storm, and a section by the back fence where trees on a neighbor’s property were removed last year, introducing both these areas to much more sun than previously.
Another little quirk in all this weed identification business. I originally thought the above photo was of henbit after it had been mowed short. Now, I think these blossoms may be creeping Charlie blossoms. Weeds of the Northeast mentions that henbit can sometimes resemble ground ivy, or creeping Charlie, which may be the situation here. In the long run, however, it’s easy to distinguish creeping Charlie from winter annuals like purple deadnettle or henbit. Creeping Charlie is a perennial that flourishes throughout the summer. The winter annuals tend to die off in late spring although they may reappear in the fall. All in all, Charlie is a much more insidious and bothersome weed.
Needless to say, I have much observing to do as regards purple deadnettle and henbit next spring. I hope I will be able to distinguish them, if both are present in my garden, and to have photos for proof and explanation.
One last winter annual, corn speedwell (Veronica arvensis), seen above, has shown up in a few isolated areas of my garden–mostly sunny, dry areas, it seems. Note the small blue flowers. I hope that’s it for corn speedwell.
And now it’s on to the beginning of the uglies. Mugwort. Broadleaf plantains. See below. There’s no rest for a weary weeder.