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Henbit is a low-growing herbaceous plant comprised of shallow and fibrous roots, slender stems, and many small flowers and leaves. The plants can reach anywhere from 10 to 40 centimeters in height and produce stems that grow both vertically and sprawl across the ground. The stems have an angular, square shape and are mostly bright green, sometimes tinged with dark purple as it ages. The stems also bear compact clusters of dark green, rounded leaves, averaging 2 to 3 centimeters in diameter, and the leaves grow in pairs on opposite sides of the stem. The leaves are deeply scalloped, giving the edges a toothed appearance, and are also covered in prominent veining, contributing to its wrinkled surface. Henbit is enveloped in a thin layer of soft, fine hairs, and the hairs point downward. The plant also produces tubular pink, red, to purple flowers in the spring among the upper leaves on the stems, eventually giving way to small seeds. Henbit emits a faint earthy aroma, and the leaves, flowers, and stems are edible when young. The leaves and stems have a crisp, slightly chewy, and succulent consistency and have a subtly sweet, green, grassy, and peppery flavor. The flowers are delicate and tender and contain a sweet, somewhat vegetal taste.
Henbit is available in the late winter through spring.
Henbit, botanically classified as Lamium amplexicaule, is a winter annual belonging to the Lamiaceae family. The wild species is one of the first plants to flower in the spring in temperate regions worldwide, producing brightly colored flowers, and is fast-growing and hardy, difficult to remove once established. Henbit is also known as Henbit Deadnettle, Common Henbit, and Greater Henbit, and despite its aggressive growth characteristics, Henbit dies off as fast as it appears, succumbing to the warmer temperatures of the late spring to early winter. Henbit is often considered a weed, growing in home gardens and crop fields, but the plant is also a wild edible green collected by foragers. Most of the plant is edible, including the stems, leaves, and flowers, and the young plants are favored for their tender texture and mild, green, slightly peppery flavor. Henbit is also occasionally confused with two other members of the Mint family, purple deadnettle, or Lamium purpureum, and ground ivy, Glechoma hederacea. While all three are entirely edible and commonly foraged, Henbit is considered to have a superior flavor, lacking the bitter notes associated with other wild greens.
Henbit has not been studied for its nutritional value, but the plants have been said to be a source of fiber to regulate the digestive tract and iron to develop the protein hemoglobin for oxygen transport through the bloodstream. The plants also contain anthocyanins in the purple pigments found in the leaves and stems, contributing antioxidant-like properties to protect the cells against free radical damage and reduce inflammation. In natural medicines, Henbit is seen as a laxative and is also steeped into a tea to reduce the severity of fevers.
Henbit has a green, herbal, and slightly peppery flavor well suited for raw and cooked preparations. The stems, flowers, and leaves are edible, and it is recommended to harvest younger plants as they have a more tender consistency. Henbit can be finely chopped and tossed into salads, used as a topping over pizza, or pureed into a pesto. The leaves can also be blended into smoothies, layered into sandwiches, or minced and stirred into herbal dips. In addition to fresh preparations, Henbit can be incorporated into soups, curries, and stews, cooked into stir-fries, mixed into frittatas and omelets, or stirred into fritter batter. Henbit can also be used similarly to other wild springtime greens such as nettle, lambs quarter, chickweed, and ground ivy. Try folding finely chopped leaves into a handmade pasta and serving with a creamy mushroom sauce, or steep the leaves into a tea. Henbit pairs well with ramps, spinach, asparagus, peas, mushrooms, especially morels, cream, soft cheeses, other herbs such as parsley, chervil, dill, mint, and chives, nuts, and meats including pork, turkey, and poultry. The plants should be used immediately after harvest for the best quality and flavor and will only keep 1 to 2 days when stored in a plastic bag in the refrigerator.
Henbit is most well-known as chicken feed. Legend has it that Henbit was introduced into North America from Europe as natural plant food for chickens, and the plant eventually escaped cultivation and was naturalized throughout the United States. The name Henbit is also believed to be derived from “hen” and “bit,” a descriptor given for the way chickens favor feeding on the plants. Despite its association as a nutritious poultry fodder, Henbit has acquired several reputations ranging from an unwanted weed to a beneficial flowering springtime plant. Henbit does have an aggressive nature, quickly taking over gardens if left unchecked, but the plants are also a favorite of pollinators such as hummingbirds and bees. The flowers provide an early source of nectar, and many gardeners leave Henbit in their gardens to sustain these pollinator populations.
Henbit is native to temperate regions of Europe, Western Asia, and Northern Africa and has been growing wild since ancient times. The plant thrives in dry, sometimes sandy soils and often appears in disturbed areas, including roadsides and yards, home gardens, pastures, and agricultural fields. Henbit has been foraged from wild plants as a food source, natural medicine, and fodder for animals throughout history. The plant was introduced to other temperate regions worldwide and is currently found in North America, South America, Europe, Western Asia, Greenland, and Australia. When in season, Henbit is not commercially cultivated and is primarily collected from wild plants. The plant is rarely sold through grocers and distributors and is sometimes found through foragers at farmer’s markets.
Recipes that include Henbit. One is easiest, three is harder.
|Southern Forager||Cannelloni Bean and Henbit Soup|
|Leda Meredith The Foragers Feast||Henbit Noodles with Creamy Wild Mushroom Sauce|
|Southern Forager||Henbit Flapjacks|
|Ravenous Craft||Roraged Wild Greens Ravioli|