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Purple Dead Nettle

by Roger Klinger

recently gave a fun presentation at UNCA’s marvelous Center for Creative Retirement, focusing on the most common spring wild edible plants and mushrooms. The audience was wonderful, and when I spoke of purple dead nettle, a common super-abundant weed in the mint family, several people were amazed it was edible, as they had it “growing everywhere in their gardens like a carpet.” All they knew was that it was beyond prolific and very pretty to look at with its two-tone purple and green leaves and tiny bright red-lavender flowers. They also knew they didn’t want it growing in their garden beds because then nothing else would!

Supremely Well Adapted

Such is the nature of “weeds”; in reality, a weed is simply a plant humans do not want in a particular place. Plants like purple dead nettle don’t know they are weeds, they are just common plants that are supremely well adapted to reproducing and thriving in our habitat, and if they happen to have their seed dropped by birds into fertile, rich garden soil, they are ecstatic and take off. A friend once commented that there’s enough dead nettle, wild daylilies, lambs quarters, and chickweed to feed this entire county all spring and into the early summer —and it’s true!

Purple dead nettle, Lamium purpureum, received the “dead” in its common name as it was considered a nettle that didn’t sting. It is not really a nettle, however, and in my opinion doesn’t resemble its stinging friends, but it can be used in a similar fashion. These plants are in the mint family, with square stems and opposite leaves. Unlike their aromatic cousins peppermint and spearmint, dead nettles have a musty mildew-like aroma when crushed under the nose, and one colleague referred to them as “smelling like old socks.” My mentor used to refer to dead nettles and other non-aromatic mints as “stinkmints.” There are no poisonous lookalikes, and it is a diverse family of plants.

Dead nettles are an important pollinator for bees as they begin blooming en masse in the fields and landscapes early in the season; the bees not only love them but depend on these wild plants for their rich nectar and protein. Years ago, when I ran a natural history center off the St. Mary River and Chesapeake Bay area in Maryland, we had about 30 beehives, and when dead nettle was in bloom, you could key out the colors by the beautiful and tasty pollen the bees were gathering.

The mint family can be confusing, since many people confuse dead nettles with another common mint called “henbit” or one called “ground ivy” or “Creeping Charlie.” Henbit has heart-shaped leaves with scalloped edges that grow along the entire body of the plant’s stem, whereas dead nettle leaves are more triangular and grow in larger clumps. Henbit is also edible either raw or as a cooked green. Ground Ivy/Creeping Charlie grows closer to the ground and acts like a carpet with blue flowers. Purple dead nettles are also hairy or fuzzy.

Purple dead nettles are extremely nutritious; they are loaded with iron, minerals, and vitamins, and the seeds are quite rich in anti-oxidants. Many people will eat them raw, but I prefer them cooked, and my favorite means of preparing them is to wilt them down in boiling water and then sauté them with garlic, a little coconut oil and a strip of bacon. They are also delicious added to soups or used raw in smoothies. I also like mixing dead nettles with other wild greens like chickweed and violet leaves and making them into pesto. The best part about dead nettles is they are so prolific; I don’t have to plant them or tend to them like other residents of the garden; I just let them run wild in the areas where they can run free with the other weeds, away from my perennial and garden beds.

Many Medicinal Properties

On the medicinal front, purple dead nettles have strong anti-inflammatory properties, according to recent ethno-pharmacological studies, and can be used to alleviate pain. The plants work by inhibiting the release of the hormone prostaglandin-2, the principle mediator for inflammation in allergies and chronic inflammatory conditions. These mints also have antimicrobial properties and are rich in essential oils that might help people suffering from allergies, as they help protect the body against pathogens and have been used to help prevent sinus, throat, and respiratory infections. The most common way of using these plants beyond eating them would be to make a tea or a tincture from the leaves and flowers, and I’m sure they exist in a capsule form. The leaves have also been used to make a salve or poultice for minor cuts, abrasions, and wounds.

Considering that it’s a superfood with many beneficial medicinal properties, purple dead nettle has an impressive repertoire for such a common weed that most people look down upon as an unwanted botanical pest!

Contact Roger at rogerklinger@charter.net.