University City

Henbit: The modest winter wonder weed

In my garden right now, only one thing is really thriving.

Sure, I’ve got nice spinach, kale and collards, and some decent beets (even if the tops look as dejected as the post-playoff Panthers).

But right now, all my sown vegetables are a sideshow to a little green carpetbagger named henbit.

Henbit is not native to North America; it hitched a ride with European settlers centuries ago and now has spread across the continent.

In University City, as elsewhere in the Southeast, henbit has thrived to the point of becoming a signature plant in spite of its modest size and small flowers, transforming whole fields into seas of purple in the early spring.

Henbit (Lamium auplexicaule) is a square-stemmed member of the mint family. It doesn’t spread aggressively, like its cousin spearmint, but has other ways to get established and stay put.

Henbit’s strategy is quiet persistence in the face of hardship. In the dead of winter, when other plants struggle or sleep, henbit grows as well as anything I can think of, rivaled only by another winter weed, chickweed.

(Nobody seems sure anymore about the exact connection between either of these plants and poultry. For henbit, some authorities say chickens like the leaves; others say they prefer the seeds. Anybody with a backyard flock is welcome to check in with some direct observation.)

Virginia gardener Nancy Hugo, in her wonderful chronicle of a gardening year, “Earth Works,” models a highly commendable behavior for any gardener or farmer: getting down on your hands and knees to get a “worms-eye view” of what’s going on.

From that perspective, Hugo admires henbit, especially its tiny buds: “velvety drops of bright purple … Thumbelina would have carried henbit buds at her wedding.”

English Renaissance herbalist John Gerard wrote that henbit’s tiny flowers could be baked with sugar and used to make a “distilled water” to cheer people up.

Hummingbirds and bees certainly appreciate henbit, especially when not much else is blooming. Henbit seeds are attached to an oil-rich elaiosome (think of a tortilla chip with a big dollop of nacho cheese) that attracts ants, which may help the plant spread.

The main vehicle for henbit’s dispersal, however, is us. It thrives wherever people farm and garden, and it’s an indicator of fertile soil, according to Leonard Perry of the University of Vermont.

Henbit is a study in adaptability. One little plant produces 1,000 seeds, which remain viable for 25 years or more. Weed scientists say it is becoming more challenging to control in “no-till” (unplowed) farming systems, even with an herbicide arsenal including 2, 4-D and paraquat.

For organic farmers and gardeners, however, henbit is relatively easy to keep in check through early weeding, since the roots are shallow.

Besides, henbit has some virtues.

For starters, it makes an excellent addition to the compost pile if it hasn’t yet set seed. Equally important, it functions as a cover crop that protects the soil from washing away and holds plant nutrients where crops can use them after the cover crop is dug back in.

“Many weedy species, such as henbit and chickweed, serve effectively as winter cover in some cropping systems,” reports Monroe Rasnake and his colleagues at the University of Kentucky. “It is not suggested that these weed species be planted, but when they occur naturally, they can be left until time to prepare the land for the next crop.”

Henbit also makes a regular appearance on lists of edible wild plants. Even Martha Stewart posts a recipe.

One can eat henbit, but we’re a long, long way from Gerard’s time, when a kitchen army of cooks and assistants had time, resources and motivation – “Downton Abbey” style – to pluck teensy-weensy henbit flowers and shake them in sugar, just so.

The taste of the leaves is not bad; henbit has a “fresh” flavor, so you can tell it is a mint, although it is not at all “minty.” As part of henbit’s ecological genius, however, the plant is covered with little hairs, making henbit cuisine, raw or cooked, a little like munching on a Q-tip.

But you never know. There is little reliable information about henbit’s nutritional analysis, and Artemis Simopoulos has discovered that another weed, purslane, is the richest plant source of omega-3 fatty acids.

Simopoulos suggests that gathered foods, now usually dismissed, dissed and sprayed as weeds, may actually be better for our health than many cultivated plants, bred for non-nutritional factors such as maximum yield.

However you feel about chowing down on weeds, don’t reach for the herbicide in an attempt to annihilate henbit.

Instead, let’s appreciate it for its quiet determination, thank it for protecting our soil, and feed it to our compost piles and maybe our chickens, even if it is a bit too furry for the salad bowl.