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.
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”