Weeds of spring: purple deadnettle, henbit, common chickweed, and hairy bittercress

Weeds of spring, also known as winter annuals: purple deadnettle, henbit, common chickweed, and hairy bittercress.

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Last year, in the posts Purple deadnettle, or is it henbit, and Weed report 2016, I fessed up to misidentifying purple deadnettle as henbit and wondering if any henbit was even present in my garden. Also, in the post Weeds of April, I identified weeds in a photo as common chickweed, but the photo clearly shows a predominance of hairy bittercress in the center of a patch of chickweed. Now, I wonder how I ever could have made such errors. I think the errors derive from paying too much attention to blooms in late spring. I saw purple blooms and thought all of them were henbit, even some creeping Charlie blooms. When more attention is paid to the leaves and structure of the weeds such identification errors start to look pretty silly. But one learns by making mistakes.

In this post, I will describe each of these winter annuals in turn, showing photos of each, and also showing how the 4 of them intermingle in the spring garden.

Purple deadnettle (Lamium purpureum).

Weeds of the Northeast identifies purple deadnettle and henbit as similar species, even comparing their habits and blooms in illustrations. For me, distinguishing one from the other started with observing that purple deadnettle has triangular leaves with shallow lobes. The upper leaves of purple deadnettle are predominantly purple. The petioles, or leaf stalks, are long near to the roots but become shorter nearer to the blooms.

Henbit (Lamium amplexicaule), on the other hand, has leaves that are more rounded and deeply lobed. Below is a photo of henbit in some creeping juniper alongside the driveway, a favorite spot for henbit, it seems. Its square stems, characteristic of the mint family, can be seen.


The lower, young leaves of henbit have petioles, or stalks, while the upper leaves are sessile, or without stalks. Henbit also has purple blooms, which have not yet appeared in the photos of henbit below, taken on April 8.

Henbit and purple deadnettle often occupy the same bare ground in early spring. Below are some examples.

These photos were taken in early April from alongside the driveway. It’s easy to distinguish the triangular leaves of the purple deadnettle from the more rounded, lobed leaves of the henbit. The purple deadnettle is blooming before the henbit this spring. The pyramidal structure of the purple deadnettle at center in the lower photo is striking, but not always a dependable identifier.

Common chickweed (Stellaria media) is omnipresent in my garden. This is the 3rd year of my 7-year weed eradication project without herbicides, and chickweed has become more pervasive each year. This is not progress toward a weed-free garden for sure.

Common chickweed grows in bare spots of the area we mow and call a lawn. As Weeds of the Northeast points out, chickweed can remain prostrate in grass while forming a more upright habit in open areas. This upright habit is certainly in evidence around the blueberries in my garden. Chickweed foliage is lush. The blooms and seedpods appear simultaneously. The white blooms look like 10 petals but are actually 5 deeply lobed petals. Robins and juncos like chickweed seeds, so when my chickweed gets out of control, I think of the birds and what a kindly act it is for me to let the chickweed run rampant.

Above are photos of common chickweed blooms. Many seed capsules are in evidence. They are present at the same time as the blooms. Each capsule contains numerous seeds. The leaves are opposite and rounded to egg-shaped to pointed. This description from Weeds of the Northeast. The leaves have petioles, or short leaf stalks, for the most part, but the petioles may be lacking on some upper leaves, as seems to be the case in the top photo above.


Interestingly, no chickweed has appeared so far in the serendipity corner, seen above, which was covered in chickweed last summer. Is this because the corner tends to be shadier and moister than other areas of my garden, or is it because it was mulched with wood chips. This corner was the last spot for the March snow to melt. According to Weeds of the Northeast, in shady, moist conditions germination of chickweed often occurs throughout the summer with multiple generations being produced in a single summer. So I shouldn’t rest easy about the chickweed problem in the serendipity corner yet. They may appear later.


Garden columbine (Aquilegia vulgaris) is plentiful in the serendipity corner, as seen above, promising much loveliness in the coming weeks. Not a weed. A wildflower.


Back to spring weeds. Hairy bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta) starts as a basal rosette of heart-shaped to kidney-shaped leaves with upright flowering stems sporting seed pods, or siliques, extending beyond the blooms. The siliques are making an appearance in the photo above of a larger than usual hairy bittercress rosette, at least larger than most in my garden. The first true leaves, those that are heart-shaped or kidney-shaped, are somewhat similar to the more rounded leaves of chickweed, but the structure of the plants is very different, and the later pinnate leaves of hairy bittercress are unique unto themselves.

I confused hairy bittercress with chickweed last year, only because I wasn’t paying attention. Both have white blooms, but the blooms are quite different. Chickweed blooms look like stars, hence the botanical name stellaria. Hairy bittercress blooms cluster at the end of stems, have 4 white petals, 4 green sepals, or outer floral leaves, and 4 or 6 stamens, as can be seen in the photo below. Not like chickweed blooms at all.


Hairy bittercress is often found standing erect in a patch of prostrate chickweed, so I think that may be the reason for my confusion.


Above is a photo of hairy bittercress and chickweed mixing it up. Mixing me up. The bloom of the hairy bittercress is prominent. The later pinnate leaves of the hairy bittercress, seen directly below and to the right of the most prominent bloom, now contrast with the rounded, pointed, egg-shaped leaves of the surrounding chickweed. Pinnate leaves have 2 rows of lateral parts along an axis. It’s complicated. No chickweed blooms are evident in the above photo.


Purple deadnettle is mixing it up with common chickweed is the photo above. The purple blooms of the purple deadnettle are apparent, as well as the starlike blooms of the chickweed.

Finally, a few other spring weeds are coming on now. Corn speedwell (Veronica arvensis), seen above, is another winter annual. A few showed up in the vegetable garden paths, just enough to remind me of their existence. Now that’s the way I like weeds to behave. Just a few dandies in the spring. Just enough galinsoga to remind me of its unusual name. But no, that’s just not the way most weeds operate. Corn speedwell produces tiny blue flowers at the very top of the flowering stem, which are not in evidence in these photos, taken April 13..


Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) and wild mustard (Brassica kaber) obligingly grew side by side for the easy photo op seen above. The garlic mustard, on the left, knows its place in my garden and is easily pulled. Its white blooms have not yet appeared in this photo, also taken April 13. The wild mustard, on the right, is a pest this spring in the area we mow and call a lawn. Wild mustard is not hard to pull, but we have been content so far to just keep mowing it down. And it keeps coming back. The photos below show its habit of invading bare spots in a so-called lawn.

This post could go on and on with spring weeds, but it’s been too long in getting published already. My 7-year weed eradication project without herbicides has taken a hit this spring because I haven’t spent enough time at it. For the remainder of this growing season, I plan to work on weed control, without herbicides, instead of eradication. Fill in those bare spots. Mulch, mulch, mulch. Weed eradication may be a fantasy anyway. Weed control, on the other hand, may be a practical and rewarding endeavor.





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