Purple Dead Nettle

Yesterday we had a wild greens salad with dead nettles as one of the primary ingredients, thanks to one of my enterprising apprentices. Dead nettles  (Lamium purpureum, Lamiaceae) is one of the first plants to flower in the southeast; sometimes even in January. Native to Eurasia, it has taken quite nicely to our fields, farms, cities, and lawns; next it will want our jobs and then destroy our way of life. The leaves and flowers can be eaten sparingly in salads or as a garnish, or cooked in soups, stir-fries etc. It’s quite pubescent (obtusely worded for hairy) so I like to mix it with other greens or cook it to mask its texture. Plants make hairs for many reasons, one of the primary ones being to deter herbivory. It works on me, and many other fellow two-legged mammals. This is a nibble plant anyhow, and not your primary potherb kind of wild green. Can you imagine cooking up a mess of peppermint? Once it starts going to seed, the calyx gets a little pokey and the salads get a little chokey.

Field of purple dead nettle

Because it is often flowering in early spring when my classes are beginning, it often finds itself as an unsuspecting mint family dissection/nibble example. This is how I happened upon the surprising discovery that ants disperse the dead nettle seeds.  Many of our native spring flowering plants have evolved with ants in an interesting seed dispersal relationship. Trillium, bloodroot, dutchman’s breeches, trout lily, wild ginger, squirrel corn are a few examples. These plants have an extra appendage on their seed called an elaiosome; it often appears as a white or translucent blob or little Mohawk. The elaiosome is a rich nutritious treat for the ant, who gladly gathers the seed, and being a social creature, takes its booty home to share with the sweet little larvae.

Purple dead nettle seeds with elaiosomes

After the ants eat the elaiosome, they discard the seed in their trash heap, which is no Miami dump mind you. It is a nutrient-rich, well aerated, and loose-soiled plant haven. My, to germinate in an ant midden says the seed (to no one in particular). I say get out there and crawl around with some purple dead nettle and watch those ants doing their thing this spring and enjoy some good old fashioned herbivory at the same time.

Purple dead nettle in my neighbors lawn

20 thoughts on “Purple Dead Nettle

  1. I cook and use dead nettle as you all have said forever and it’s great made with dandelion pick fresh boiled set for few hours then boil again strain and add honey as sweet tea it a great tea before super or bed too much to add for other good health reasons to drink but do try great digestive tea mixture

  2. Thank you for this post! I’ve been looking for something about purple dead nettle just this week, since there are many of these, chickweed, cleavers, and violets in my South Carolina yard right now. I’d love for there to more herbal uses, but spring nutrients are just fine!

  3. Shanel Taylor says:

    So I looked online and found nothing so coming to you.. Have you ever heard of any benefits to using Purple dead Nettle in a healing salve? Either by itself or combined with other helpful herbs? I have this growing wild on my property, and have bees so have a ongoing supply of beeswax and I love making healing salves and wondered if this would be a good addition. Maybe infusing in olive oil? Anyone have any knowledge on this?

    • Hi Shanel! I personally don’t use purple dead nettle medicinally, but it has been used in Europe to stop bleeding—the bruised leaves are applied topically to stanch wounds. It has also been used as a diaphoretic. I don’t know of any tradition of using it as a salve, but I’m sure your bees are quite happy to have this plant around -it’s very popular with the pollinators!

  4. Loved learning about Purple Deadnettle or Purple Dead Nettle (which is correct?), currently growing prolifically in my backyard in No. Delaware. Should the leaves be eaten by someone allergic to Stinging Nettles? Are the flowers edible, too?

    • Sara Kinney says:

      Hi Sheryl, glad you enjoyed the post! Yes, the flowers are edible. You may just want to pull the flower from its slightly scratchy calyx (base) before eating. Despite the similar common name, stinging nettles (Urtica dioica) and (Lamium purpureum) are completely unrelated, and therefore have different medicinal and edible profiles.

  5. We all have to discover the magic of the “mints” for ourselves as they seem to benefit everyone on an individual basis. Culpeper called her Archangel which is really a more appropriate name. She announces the return of Spring.

  6. Juliet,
    Ah, dead nettle… a poorly named beautiful flower. My favorite from childhood.
    Can you tell me more about why they shouldn’t be eaten in large quantites? I’ve always picked a mess of them 3 or 4 times in a spring to steam, and generally mix them with collards or kale to mask the texture. Is that too much? What are the risks? Thanks for this!

    • Karen,

      It is an unfortunate name, indeed and a beautiful flower — agreed! Great question about not eating them in large quantities. I have never seen anything about toxicity, but it is my intuitive sense that they shouldn’t be eaten in great quantities — kind of like how we eat basil ( mint family relative). It seems like the way you eat them is perfectly fine….
      Warmly,
      Juliet

      • Great! Thanks for your quick reply!
        I’m pleased to hear that, ’cause my body just likes them. I get so excited when the wild edibles start popping back up, and into my family’s diet.

  7. Oh how it makes my heart sing to see someone writing about Purple Dead Nettle! Most people have never heard of it or do not consider it a medicinal Herb! I live in Piedmont NC and it is one of the first Herbs I found when beginning my Herbal Green Life. You can use the whole plant, or just blooms or just leaves = place in a small jar (fresh of course) and cover with Raw Apple Cider Vinegar, cover with a plastic lid. It is ready to use as soon as the next day (remember it grows stronger everyday). It is a super anti-allergen. So every morning after breakfast I eat 1 – 2 tablespoons of Garlic Honey, followed by a teaspoon of infused vinegar. My vinegars are whatever is fresh at the moment. In very early Spring it is Purple Dead Nettle Vinegar, followed a little later by Dandelion Root Vinegar, then comes Violet, then Yarrow Vinegar – all made in small batches from very young plants, so when you finish it, it is time to move on to the next Seasonal delight. No cold/flu, no illness at all since I started doing this.

  8. Juliet, can you tell me if you have ever used or heard of using Lamium purpureum similar to the sue as Lamium album? Isla Burgess can’t seem to say enough about white dead nettle for a female herb, but I cannot find the seeds here in the US to grow it, but we have lots of Lamium purpureum here in Michigan. Thanks for your help on this.

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