Henbit (Lamium amplexicaule) is one of the earliest spring plants to provide weedy splashes of color to the Lowcountry.
It’s called a “winter annual” because it germinates from seeds during fall and early winter, growing slowly, if at all, during cool weather. With the arrival of spring, henbit accelerates its growth, reaches a sprawling height of six inches or more, and bursts into bloom. It dies off during the heat of summer, but a new crop of seeds sprouts in the fall.
A member of the mint family, henbit is related to many of our familiar culinary herbs—basil, rosemary, sage, oregano, marjoram, and of course spearmint and peppermint.
Although not aromatic like many of its relatives, it possess common mint-family characteristics—a square stem, oppositely-arranged leaves, and small flowers whose petals are fused into a tube with two “lips.”
In henbit’s case, the small flowers are pinkish-purple, and the leaves are rounded with toothed or scalloped margins. Another key feature is that the uppermost leaves lack stalks but instead directly clasp the plant stem.
Native to Europe, Asia, and parts of Africa, the plant has become naturalized throughout most of the United States and is common along roadsides and in fields, lawns, and gardens.
Why the name “henbit”? Apparently chickens like to eat it, though it’s toxic to cattle, horses, and sheep. Honeybees collect its nectar and pollen.
Historically, humans have also added henbit to their diet, as the leaves, stems and flowers are edible either raw or cooked. The plant is said to be rich in vitamins, iron, and fiber.
Preliminary scientific studies suggest that henbit and certain close relatives may even have potential medicinal uses in reducing pain and inflammation.
Vicky McMillan, a retired biologist formerly at Colgate University,lives on Hilton Head Island. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.