Look Down: Henbit and Chickweed

If you look down at your feet, you might just see a new green world.

For me, that’s what happens every spring here at Meadow Knoll. Henbit (Lamium amplexicaule) flourishes in the early spring, and if I allowed it, this little eager beaver would monopolize my garden beds. A member of the mint family (but not very “minty” in taste), it begins showing up in January, one of the first green plants of our new year. This year, it was damaged by the Great February Freeze-Up, but it’s blooming now, to the great delight of the early bees. The hummingbirds will likely be here next week. They enjoy it, too.

And so do the Girls–the three hens that are left from the flock of six I started a couple of years ago. Henbit earned its common name for a good reason: somebody noticed, way back when, that chickens love it. In 1578, an English botanist named Henry Lyte described it in in his bestselling book  A Niewe Herball: “The fourth kinde of Chickeweede . . . henbit hath many rounde and hearie stemmes… The floures be blew or purple.” In 1598, John Gerard (Herball) was a little more specific: “The great Henbit hath feeble stalkes leaning towarde the grounde, whereon do grow leaues like those of the dead Nettell.” Henbit itself (a Lamium) is a nettle–but a so-called dead nettle, because it doesn’t sting.

And yes, the Girls do love it. I pull a couple of handfuls every day for them. They gobble it down and look around for more. This little trio used to be free-range, until we had several fatal visits from predators–an owl, a fox, a coyote, we never knew what it was. But after losing two Rhode Island Reds and a Buff Orpington in one sad week, I penned them up. Better a longer life in the coop, I tell them, than a few hours loose in the meadow. I’m not sure they believe me. But they’re still with us, which I couldn’t guarantee if they were footloose and fancy-free. Especially in spring, when all the wild things are hungry.

Another bit of underfoot greenery is chickweed (Stellaria media), a modest little plant that puts on a big show in early spring. The Girls enjoy it, too. Chickweed was also featured in spring soup, celebrated by the author of the popular 1578 Kalender of Shepherdes: “Take chyckewede, clythers [cleavers, Gallium Aperine], ale, and otemele [oatmeal], and make a potage therwith.” A green soup in spring was considered a tonic, something to clean out the system and fire you with some new energy.

These days, foragers enjoy both henbit and chickweed in salads and cooked along with other spring greens (kale, spinach, chard). Both are high in iron, vitamins and fiber. In folk medicine, henbit been brewed in a tea to treat rheumatism, fever, constipation, lethargy, and used as a poultice, to treat stings and scrapes. Chickweed is used as a topical ointment to treat a variety of skin conditions. Researchers say it has significant concentrations of flavonoids, phenolic acid, saponins, coumarins, and terpenoids. Quite a mouthful.

All this from a few weeds underfoot in spring. Remarkable, isn’t it? Goes to show that you don’t have to look far for good things. Just look down.

Reading note. 

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

–Mary Oliver, “The Summer Day”


15 comments on “Look Down: Henbit and Chickweed

  1. Greetings from New Jersey. It’s enjoyable to read your posts and hear about what’s happening in your area. We have just enjoyed a brief spell of warm weather – a teaser of what’s coming soon. I too am a huge fan of China and am so looking forward to her next story. My first exposure was a basket of books I picked up at a sale that included some of her mysteries. I was hooked!! I’ve bought them all and thoroughly enjoyed each one. Thank you for sharing China with us! Happy Spring Susan!

  2. Hi Susan, Nice to hear the girls are enjoying their Spring treats. When I lived in Alaska I had a huge chickweed bed. We ate it in salads and drank lots of chickweed tea. It was supposed to melt away excess fat but never made any changes in me. 🙂 I don’t have any cool and shady spots here in Michigan so no more chickweed. Enjoy the Spring weather!

  3. I also have both of these weeds, but did not know the name of henbit. I’m German and the Henbit flower is referred to as a “thunderstorm flower”, some old wives tale!
    Neither one is out here in Wisconsin, except the snow bells crocuses and some naked ladies.
    But a few more days of warm weather and I might be able to walk across my property without snow shoes! So, in the meantime my sewing and needle work keeps me busy. Will be starting another cross stitch project, one of Mzrjolein Basteins Vera the mouse pictures, helps to keep my fingers nimble.

  4. I too thank you for the breath of spring. Alas, here in Idaho, winter still holds a strong grip. Nary a green bud, early green stem nor even a weed has poked its head above our still often frozen ground.

  5. Despite the fact that you are weeks ahead of Minnesota, a fresh breeze blew through my heart reading this. Thank you, Susan, for the reminder that the simplest things at our feet can be at least as interesting as the latest Hosta or hydrangea cultivar.

  6. We add early strawberries and muddled woodruff and let the wine sit for a little while (maybe two hours) then add a fresh sprig to garnish. I love it. The strawberries are perfect with the woodruff.
    As an aside, my Mama, born in Bertram TX in 1921 used to go foraging with me and she passed on many things. She was the daughter of a Seventh Son. He’s buried near you in Betram. ❤️My daughter learned from me.

  7. My bigmother was delighted to find poke salad as a “spring tonic.” So glad spring is around the corner here in Alabama!

  8. One of the weeds in my narcissus bed looks similar to the chickweed I recall from my childhood home. Both are in Los Angeles, near enough to the ocean to have fog as a normal part of life. The reference to coumarin as one of the components of chickweed, reminded me of an experiment with Sweet Woodruff.

    A friend had read about adding Sweet Woodruff to white wine, back in 15th or 16th century. We were part of an herbal group within the Kingdom of Caid, part of the Society of Creative Anachronism – studying and playing at the good parts of the Middle Ages and Renaissance in any part of the world. No plague, religous wars – “wars” are camping events. If the sides are not even during the fighting activities, some people switch sides. Lots of cooking, dancing, crafts, along with the fightiing.

    She wanted to try adding Sweet Woodruff to wine, but the local nursuries in her area didn’t have any. Probably due to the heat and dryness. The dampness here made it available.

    We were not impressed with the flavor of the wine, so didn’t repeat the effort. We didn’t find out until later that coumarin is found in Sweet Woodruff. Once we learned that, we realized a warning label on the wine would be a kindness to those on Coumadin. The SCA is usually good about listing ingredients to protect those with allergies.

  9. Thanks for the info, very interesting. I recently started reading Ruby’s favorite The Cat Who Books. Love them, thanks for the referral.

  10. Susan, you get our minds to think about nature in ways we might otherwise miss. On my walk on Monday, I shall now notice green things as they bloom before me. It is my one & only life.

  11. I really enjoy these little writings, the history and practical use of the plants you present.

  12. Susan, I have loved your China Bayles books since I first found one at a Book Rack store in Richardson, TX 30 plus years ago. I read them out of order but this year I am slowly buying them and reading straight through, so I can tie up some of my loose ends. We loved traveling to Austin and out to Fredericksburg, Boerne, and Gruene. So, I can picture what Pecan Springs might look like, due to your vivid descriptions. Every time I read one of your books I can conjure up the same places, and I have to say after this past year I took lots of trips to visit China.
    Thank you so much and I hope you continue sharing China’s adventures for a long time to come. I was thinking Sweet Annie might be a good title for a future book. If you are ever in Oxford, MS let me know, I would love to take you to lunch!
    Marianna Ochs

  13. I have henbit and chickweed on my property as well, but I didn’t know that’s what it was or it’s history. Thanks for the information – and that lovely poem! Hope all is well at Meadow Knoll!

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