Clasping henbit (Lamium amplexicaule) was introduced from from Eurasia and North Africa and is now well established throughout North America. Invading cultivated fields, gardens and waste places, clasping henbit is often considered a noxious weed. Yet this member of the mint family is also deemed a wildflower when found in lesser numbers, usually in open meadows or forest edges. These clasping henbit plants were growing along the south shore of Baum Lake (Shasta County CA).
The spreading or weakly erect stems of clasping henbit are much branched at the base and arise from a taproot, rarely growing much more than 12 inches in height. The opposite leaves are paired and rounded with deeply toothed margins. Closer to the plant base the leaves have stalks (petioles) while the upper leaves are stalkless and appear to “clasp” the four-sided, square stem.
The rose-purple clasping henbit flowers occur in clusters or whorls in the axils of the upper leaves. The flowers are slender, tubular, stalkless and extend well beyond the hairy calyx (cuplike green part surrounding the petals). The five petals are arranged in two lips. The upper lip is hooded and has short hairs on the back while the lower lip has dark spots.
The entire clasping henbit plant is edible and makes a nice addition to a salad. Herbalists use clasping henbit as an astringent and vulnerary (to heal wounds). A tea brewed from henbit leaves and flowers is reported to correct diarrhea and other digestive imbalances. Poultices of clasping henbit are used to reduce swelling and heal minor burns and insect stings.
The colloquial name henbit was bestowed on L. amplexicaule because chickens like to nibble the plant. I cannot vouch for clasping henbit’s palatability – at least for fowl. Clasping henbit is also known as dead nettle – “dead” because it does not sting like other nettles.
Here in northeastern Califonia the wildflowers are only beginning to blossom. I enjoyed finding the purple henbit flowers, which look like orchids to me, tucked among last season’s brown grasses.