Every winter, there comes the point where you bundle up tightly, head outdoors, and it hits you, right in the face – that little whiff of spring.
Instead of bitter cold, the wind feels a tad warmer.
The sky is lighter.
And is that birdsong you hear?
It’s at this time when you feel that maybe, just maybe, winter won’t last forever. And before you know it, spring is here, bringing with it a whole cornucopia of wild food to eat.
Spring is one of my favorite times of year to forage. After all of the white and gray and cold, we’re suddenly surrounded by growing things. The green of it all almost hurts your eyes.
This is the time of year to forage purple dead nettle.
For most folks, this humble-looking plant is nothing more than a weed growing in their yard. But for foragers who know, Lamium purpureum is a handy plant to have around for eating and folk medicine.
Purple dead nettle isn’t native to the states; its natural habitat is Eurasia. But it’s been here for so long, and it’s so prolific, it might as well be a native plant. You can find it in nearly every part of the united states.
It goes by many names – dead nettle, red dead nettle and purple archangel.
Purple dead nettle is a bit of a mixed-up plant. It earned its name, dead nettle, because the leaves are similar to stinging nettle. However, because there are no stings on the leaves, it’s considered ‘dead’. To top it all off, it’s not even a true nettle – it’s a mint.
Before we go any further, please be responsible and always ask your physician before trying any new herbal remedies, especially if you’re pregnant, nursing or immunocompromised.
If you’re new to foraging, this is a great plant to start with. Here are 12 reasons you should forage purple dead nettle.
1. It’s Easy to Identify
Many people are intimidated by foraging for wild food because they’re nervous about ID’ing plants incorrectly. And that’s always a serious consideration.
However, purple dead nettle is one of the easiest plants to identify. In fact, you probably already know it by sight, even if you don’t know the name. I’m sure you saw the picture at the top and said, “Oh yeah, I know what that is.”
Purple dead nettle is a member of the mint family. It has heart-shaped or spade-shaped leaves with a square stem. Towards the top of the plant, the leaves take on a purple-ish hue, hence its name. At the top of the plant are tiny, elongated purple-pink flowers.
2. No Dangerous Look-Alikes
Purple dead nettle doesn’t have any poisonous look-alikes. It’s often confused with henbit, but that’s okay, as henbit is also an edible weed. Because of this, purple dead nettle is the perfect plant to start you on your foraging journey.
How to Tell Purple Dead Nettle from Henbit
Purple dead nettle and henbit are both of the mint family, and they have that easy-to-identify square stem. To tell them apart, look at the leaves.
Purple dead nettle has leaves that grow from the top of the stem down, in an almost cone shape. The leaves often have a purple blush to them. And the edges of the heart-shaped leaves are saw-toothed.
Henbit has leaves that grow in a cluster around the stem, then a length of bare stem, then another cluster, and so on. The leaves of henbit have scalloped edges.
3. You Can Find Purple Dead Nettle Everywhere
I can guarantee you’ve seen it before, even if you didn’t know what it was. And once you’re familiar with it, you will see it everywhere you go.
It’s growing in the ditch alongside the road. It’s the giant swathes of dusky purple you see in cornfields, where it grows before the corn is planted. It grows at the edges of your lawn. It grows in patches on the edge of the woods. It’s probably growing in your garden, much to your chagrin.
It loves disturbed land, so check in fields or where the brush was cleared in the previous season.
This wild edible grows nearly everywhere as it’s not picky when it comes to sunlight – it grows in full sun and even shade. And purple dead nettle loves moist soil.
4. It’s One of the First Wild Edibles to Forage in the Spring
Long before I find my first morel of the season, I’m sipping fresh purple dead nettle tea. This is one of the first wild edibles to make an appearance each spring. And if you live in a climate with mild winters, you may even see it in the winter too.
Because it’s one of the first plants on the scene, it’s an important food for wild pollinators. You’ll often see it buzzing with bees. If you live in an area that doesn’t have a lot of purple dead nettle, you may wish to skip this plant and save it for the bees.
However, if you can’t throw a stone without it landing in a patch of purple dead nettle, help yourself.
5. You Can Eat It
Purple dead nettle is edible. Which always makes me laugh a bit; everyone always assumes edible = tastes good. I’ll be honest; I don’t find myself chowing down on dead nettle salads each spring. On its own, it’s a bit strong tasting, very herbal and grassy. And the leaves are fuzzy, which doesn’t give it the most appealing mouthfeel.
That being said, it’s still a nutritious wild green, and it’s worth incorporating it into your diet.
I do toss it in my morning smoothie. Sometimes it goes in my scrambled eggs. And I add a handful of the leaves to my salad, along with plenty of other fresh greens. You could even chop it up and add it to tacos instead of cilantro.
Use this edible weed in the same way you would any other bitter green or herb.
6. Your Chickens Can Eat It Too
You aren’t the only one who will enjoy fresh purple dead nettle. Chickens love this green as well, and after a long, cold winter, your flock deserves a healthy, tasty treat. Don’t forget to pick a little to share with your peeps. They’ll eat it right up.
7. It Helps Those Spring Allergies
I never used to have allergies. Bring on the pollen; I can handle it.
And then I moved to Pennsylvania. Every spring was like a personal assault on my mucus membranes. By May, I was ready to claw my eyeballs out.
Too much? Sorry.
Then I found out about purple dead nettle. Every spring, as soon as it starts growing, I start each day with a cup of tea made with it and a large tablespoon of local honey. It’s certainly helped make the season of ‘All the Pollens’ bearable.
I even make it into a natural soda using my homemade ginger bug. And sometimes, a splash of gin goes into the soda too. Those herbal flavors work well together.
8. Itch and Bite Relief on the Go
When you’re outdoors and find yourself on the wrong end of an angry insect, relief is as close as a purple dead nettle patch.
Chew the leaves up and then put them on the bug bite or sting. (Yeah, it’s kinda gross, but that’s life.) Purple dead nettle has anti-inflammatory properties, which will help to bring relief to the bite.
9. Purple Dead Nettle Salve
Or if putting leaves covered in spit on your bug bite isn’t your cup of tea, you can always start out prepared. Mix up a batch of the Nerdy Farm Wife’s purple dead nettle salve and tuck it into your day pack for hikes and adventures outdoors.
Purple dead nettle is anti-inflammatory and astringent, making it a good basic healing salve.
For more information on its many healing properties, you can check out the Herbal Academie’s Purple Dead Nettle page.
10. Dye Wool Yarn with Purple Dead Nettle
This prolific weed yields the loveliest pale green dyed yarn. It’s a soft, fresh green, perfect for spring. If you’ve got plenty of acreage brushed with the purple of dead nettle this spring, consider picking a bucketful to dye wool (or other protein-based fibers).
The lovely Janet over at Timbercreek Farm will walk you through the entire process.
11. Create a Purple Dead Nettle Tincture
For my herbal remedies, I prefer tinctures. They’re easy to make and more potent. And if you don’t enjoy the taste of purple dead nettle tea, a tincture is a great way to enjoy the medicinal benefits without having to gulp down a tea you hate.
In a clean mason jar, combine ½ cup of 100 proof vodka and ¼ cup of finely minced purple dead nettle. Place a small piece of parchment paper over the top of the jar before firmly screwing on the lid. (The parchment will protect the metal lid from the alcohol.)
Give the jar a good shake and then store it in a cool, dark place, such as a cupboard, for a month. Strain the tincture into a clean amber bottle or jar and store, again, somewhere cool and dark.
Take a dropper of the tincture as needed, or you can stir a dropper into your favorite beverage.
12. Purple Dead Nettle Infused Oil
Similarly, you can infuse a carrier oil with it and use it topically. You can also use the infused oil to make balms, lotions and cream.
Fill a sterilized pint jar halfway with minced purple dead nettle. Top up the jar with a neutral carrier oil, such as apricot kernel, grapeseed oil or even olive oil. Fill the jar almost completely.
Place the lid on the jar and give it a good shake. Store the oil somewhere dark, and give it a good shake now and again. I like to keep my infusions in my pantry, as it’s easy to remember to shake them. The infused oil will be ready in about 6-8 weeks. Strain the oil into another sterilized jar, cover and label the jar and store it someplace dark and cool.
Now that you know what you’re looking for get out there and pick some purple dead nettle. But I should probably warn you, once you start picking it, you’ll be well on your way to foraging other plants. And before you know it, you’ll be eating nutrient-dense wild food and using folk remedies and feeling great.