"A worthless little weed."
(United States Commisioner of Agriculture, 1865 commenting on Henbit.)
In the neigborhood in which I currently reside (Bay Village located near Athens, AL)- there is a flower that begins to carpet the fields and yards in February and March. This year there seems to be a greater abundance of this plant than in other years- so much so that there are great patches of purple blanketing the fields and roadsides. The plant is in the Mint family and its common name is Henbit (Lamium amplexicaule). And as in most families- there is a roguish cousin that can be found in the area as well- the Purple Deadnettle (Lamium purpureum). Both plants are natives of Asia and Europe and were brought over by the settlers from Europe.
Would a Henbit by any other name still be as ugly? (My apologies to Shakespeare.)
Researching the etymology of Henbit has been fascinating. Consider the following: according to the American Botanist (Willard Nelson Clute)- "Henbit implies a morsel for hens or chickens, but how it applies to Lamium amplexicaule is a mystery." (Gee, thanks Willard- that clears that up. ) As for its Latin name: Lamium means "throat". Examining the flower blossom it is easy to see how it got its name. Although, another book's author listed the Latin translation for Lamium as "the name of a sea monster, to which the grotesque flowers may be likened." (source) The majestic sounding publication of The Imperial Dictionary of the English Language: A Complete Encyclopedia, 1883 had this to say: "Henbit. A name applied to Lamium amplexicaule, an ugly weed." Hmm, I know one dictionary writer that needs a nap. Other common names for Henbit: Greater Henbit, Henbit Dead Nettle, Henbit Archangel and Lion's Snap. And, just in case your interested- there is even a Chinese word for Lamium aplexicaule- Vocabulary and Handbook of the Chinese Language.
Laxative. A purple patch of laxatives blowing in the wind. Please do not think of that the next time you see this plant. However, in the book Medical Lexicon: A Dictionary of Medical Science (Robley Dunglison-1860) the author indicates that Henbit is regarded as a tonic, diaphoretic, and a laxative. The author doesn't list which part of the plant is a tonic and/or laxative- ie; the root, flower, leaves, etc.
When it comes to the edibility of this plant- it's all in the leaves. The young leaves are said to be edible- raw or cooked and may also be used in salads and as a potherb. (Disclaimer: eat wild plants at your own risk.)
Oh dear, the poor, poor Henbit plant doesn't seem to get much respect. But, in its defense, I'll close this article with a good thought regarding its usefulness. According to a Wikipedia entry: "Where common, it is an important nectar and pollen plant for bees, especially honeybees, where it helps start the spring buildup. "
Any plant that helps the honeybees- is a friend of mine.
"A worthless little weed."