I thought I was familiar with all the common edible weeds in our area, but it turns out that I was wrong. Here’s a new one for me, and these notes are the result of my studies. In early spring, when almost no other wild edibles are ready to harvest, this one is a nutritional boost and a bountiful beginning to the foraging year.
Purple Dead Nettle Lamium purpureum, Lamiaceae
I’ve seen this plant for years but never took the time to get to know it before. One of the earliest spring edibles, it’s easiest to identify when it is young and has just started flowering. Purple dead nettle is usually found in low growing patches, about five or six inches high. The reddish purple leaves at the top are a great clue. Small, light purple blossoms peek out from under the top leaves. As with all members of the mint family, the stems are square. The whole plant is covered in fine hairs.
Purple Dead Nettle as Food
Like most edible weeds, purple dead nettle is found in places disturbed by humans. It’s important to pick it from clean areas away from roads, construction or chemical sprays. To harvest, snip the tender top sprigs and flowers. Later in the season, you can still gather leaves, but the stems will be too tough to eat.
Purple dead nettle has a mild flavour. The small purplish leaves at the top are the most tender, with a delicate, almost sweet taste. Sprigs or leaves can be eaten raw, in salad for example, but the fine hairs might be noticeable. Hairy is not a very desirable texture,to my way of thinking. The flowers are fine in salads, but it would take forever to gather any quantity. Better uses of the plant might be as an addition to a green smoothie, as a pesto, or as a steamed green. Use it as a substitute for cooked spinach in any recipe. This nourishing plant is high in vitamins C, A, and K, iron, calcium, magnesium, manganese, and fiber.
I like to find out what the herbalists have to say about health benefits of the plants I forage. Here are some that purple dead nettle has to offer:
- digestive support
- treatment for winter colds and spring allergies since it is a mild antihistamine
- anti-fungal and antibacterial
- immune booster due to high amounts of vitamin C and bioflavonoids
- spring cleanse (detox tea) since it is a diaphoretic, diuretic and laxative
- anti-inflammatory activity with pain-reducing properties for inflammation in allergies and chronic inflammatory conditions
Externally, the leaves have anti-inflammatory and coagulant properties that stop bleeding and reduce swelling, making them useful as a poultice on wounds or cuts. Their antibacterial and antifungal qualities help prevent infection.
Caution: I found one source who advises that dead nettle should not be taken while pregnant or trying to become pregnant.
Since purple dead nettle blooms so early in the spring, it is an important first food for the honey bees who have been dormant all winter. So watch for bees and always leave plenty for them to collect nectar from when you harvest.
I guess I will have to clarify now when I talk about nettle this or nettle that. Maybe I’ll have to call these little ones deadnettle, but what a horrible name. (It’s almost as bad as hairy bittercress.) Apparently somewhere back in time, stinging nettle and dead nettle were considered to be similar, but dead nettle hairs did not sting. In other words, they were dead. The two plants are not even related since Urtica diorica is in the nettle family Urticaceae, and Lamium purpureum is in the mint family Lamiaceae.