Many wild plants are undervalued. Treated as nothing but weeds, they’re frequently mowed over, chopped down, or rooted out by owners who misunderstand them or lack the time and energy to cultivate them properly.
Spreading in a carpet of pink and green ground cover in spring, fall, and winter, purple deadnettle (Lamium purpureum) is one of these wild plants. In addition to its profligate growth and fecundity, purple deadnettle is both edible and medicinal, with a scope of uses including wound poultice, diarrhea remedy, salad fixing, and bee food.
Originating in Europe and Asia but naturalized in North America, purple deadnettle is a member of the mint family (Lamiaceae) and, much like other species in this group, spreads like wildfire and has a square stem.
However, due to its height of no more than eighteen inches — along with the ease with which it can be pulled out — it can be managed quite easily in the event that it starts to get out of hand.
And though it shares its name with stinging nettle (Urtica dioica), purple deadnettle has none of the fibrous hairs or histamine compounds that are responsible for the pain inflicted by stinging nettle. On the contrary, purple deadnettle is harmless and can be handled without gloves or any other form of protection — hence the epithet “dead” in this case, to signify its lack of pain-causing potency.
The plant as a whole is, however, easily mistaken for two other wild members of the mint family, namely ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea) and henbit (Lamium amplexicaule). Both of these plants are also edible, so there’s little reason for concern. But to distinguish them from each other, it’s helpful to look closely at the leaves.
Ground ivy has oval leaves with lobed edges and short leafstalks. Likewise Henbit has oval leaves with lobed edges but no leafstalk. Purple deadnettle on the other hand has heart-shaped leaves, about 0.7 inches long, with lobed edges and long leafstalks.
The flowers of purple deadnettle are also nearly identical to henbit, standing a diminutive 0.2 inches tall and possessing an upper lip-like petal and lower throat-like petal. (This may be the origin of the nomenclature for the genus Lamium, since the Greek word for “throat” is laimos.) Both of these petals are pinkish-lavender with heavy purple markings especially on the lower petal.
In addition, due to the fact that purple deadnettle only reproduces sexually — through pollination of its flowers and dispersal of the resulting seeds — it can be removed entirely with no need for worry about residual growth from rhizomes or stolons.
Finally, as with most members of the mint family, purple deadnettle has shallow, fibrous roots which allow it to settle into the soil very quickly but also make removal by hand quite easy.
[Before harvesting or consuming wild plants, make sure you have the permission of the landowner and an understanding of considerations for use.]
Though purple deadnettle is nowhere nearly as tasty or aromatic as other members of the mint family, its leaves and flowers can be used in a culinary setting by those willing to overlook its rather grassy, bitter flavor. In particular, it can be used as a garnish in salads, pureed into sauces like pesto, or brewed in a tea strainer with hot water to make an herbal infusion.
Before putting purple deadnettle in a main dish, however, it would be helpful to try a small portion to ensure you find it palatable. Although it is edible and therefore nontoxic to humans, it is definitely an acquired taste.
Due to the high tannin content of purple deadnettle, the herbal infusion made from it can also be used as a diarrhea remedy, since tannins help mucous membranes to contract, thereby sealing sores or abrasions.
These tannins also play a key role in another primary use of purple deadnettle, as a wound poultice. Simply by picking a small handful of the leaves and chewing them until they resemble green paste, you can make your own poultice that can be applied to minor cuts, scrapes, or insect bites.
Due to its hardiness, purple deadnettle blooms almost year-round, with the exception of the hottest and coldest months. As such, it’s one of the few wildflowers available to bees in the winter months, providing pollen and nectar which help to keep bee colonies alive through their most challenging season.
And because of the crucial role honey bees play in agriculture — thereby ensuring that we have foods like coffee, tomatoes, pizza, and chocolate — their survival is essential not only to nature but to humanity.
So, at the end of the day, this cold-tolerant medicinal wild mint is another demonstration of nature’s preference for mutualism.
By providing food to bees, purple deadnettle gives them an incentive to carry around its pollen, ensuring the viability of another generation of plants. And in return bees are able to extract nectar which they take back to their hives, eventually producing honey to support their own colonies and enabling humans to continue to eat foods like coffee, tomatoes, pizza, and chocolate — which would otherwise be scarce or nonexistent.
And that’s a model of society that all of us should be learning from.