This week’s plant for #WildEdibleWednesday is Purple Dead Nettle, or Lamium purpureum. Although it sounds like an alt-metalcore band name (at least to me), purple dead nettle is another common “lawn weed” that you’ve probably walked by every day without knowing what it was. Closely related to Henbit (which we’ll feature in a few weeks) purple dead nettle has a great range of edible and medicinal uses.
Although a member of the mint family and not a true nettle, purple dead nettle is so named for its loose similarity to stinging nettle (Urtica dioica). It does bear a resemblance, but the hairs on its stem and leaves don’t sting – they’re “dead.” Native to broad swaths of Europe and Western Asia, it has become widely naturalized throughout the U.S. and Canada. It is an annual herbaceous forb, growing from seed every year and dying back. It is semi-evergreen in Georgia, and can be a somewhat reliable food source throughout most of the year. It grows out and blooms in late March and early April here. It is an extremely prolific plant - left unchecked, it will completely take over a lawn or pasture. In fact, its taxonomic name means “the devouring purple monster.” Like violets from a few weeks ago, it’s rare to find just one dead nettle. Where there’s one, there’s usually a colony. Purple dead nettle likes open, disturbed areas such as lawns, roadsides, pastures, and waste areas. You’ll also find it in open woods from time to time. Dead nettle is most easily identified by its growth structure. It has a cone-shaped leaf pattern, that is, larger leaves on the bottom of its stems growing to smaller leaves on the top. The uppermost leaves on the stem are also a slightly purple shade. Leaves are triangular, unlike Henbit, which has squared-off leaves. Like all members of the mint family, dead nettle has a distinctive square stem. The whole plant is covered in fine, soft hairs. In early spring, it blooms out with delicate pinkish-purple flowers emerging from underneath its uppermost leaves. Dead nettle is a prime bee plant, and is a lifesaver to early-season honey bees who may be able to find little other nectar in the cold days of spring.
Dead nettle is a great edible. It has a mild, grassy flavor similar to spinach, but its hairiness makes it better eaten cooked or otherwise processed. The hair doesn’t really bother me, but some people say it makes them gag. If you’re going to eat it raw, go for the purple leaf shoots at the top of the stem. They’re more tender and less hairy, and have a milder, almost sweet flavor. It can be added sparingly to salads, where the texture of its leaves is less noticeable, or it can be cooked like any other green. I’ve heard of people adding it to smoothies like kale, or using it in soups, stews, casseroles, and the like in place of spinach. Dead nettle is highly nutritious – like any other dark leafy green, it’s high in vitamins C, A, and K, iron, calcium, magnesium, manganese, and fiber.
Dead nettle’s best use is probably medicinal, however. Internally, it’s useful for treating both late winter colds and spring allergies. It’s a mild antihistamine, anti-inflammatory, antibacterial/antifungal, and also an immune booster due to its high concentrations of vitamin C and bioflavonoids. It’s also great as a full-body flush (call it a detox tea or a cleanse if you like), as it’s a diaphoretic, diuretic, and laxative. Eating dead nettle leaves can confer some of these benefits, but the best way to take full advantage of them is to make a tea. Prepare it as you would a plantain tea, sweeten with honey, and you’re good to go. Just remember the 6-8 ounce rule to begin with… it is a laxative, after all.
Externally, the leaves make a fine poultice for halting bleeding and treating minor wounds. Their anti-inflammatory and coagulant properties stop bleeding and reduce swelling, while their antibacterial and antifungal qualities help prevent infection.
Purple dead nettle is just further proof that those of us who haven’t spent a fortune sterilizing our lawns and killing anything that isn’t grass are way ahead of the game… not only do we have an on-site salad bar, it’s a pharmacy as well. Know anything about purple dead nettle that we missed? Tell us in the comments!