Countless botanicals have received unfortunate names: bastard toadflax, creeping Charlie, beggars’ ticks, lousewort. But purple dead nettle has got to be one of the worst. Inaccurate and misleading, it does this early spring beauty no justice.
Expect to find purple dead nettle (Lamium purpureum) amongst other underappreciated weeds. Look for it in spring, when our temperatures begin to warm and sun shines heartily upon thawing lawns, old fields and pastures. On my property, I find it on the sunny side of the barn in the company of cleavers and dock. The plant arises on a square stalk bearing a pair or two of heart-shaped leaves and a dense cluster terminally, each leaf fuzzy and toothed. Tucked between leaves are two-lipped, purplish-pink flowers. Someone, somewhere, thought these fuzzy leaves resembled those of stinging nettle. However, purple dead nettle, a member of the mint family, is no relation to true nettles. Given that this mint didn’t sting, that same someone deemed it dead. And that, folks, is how purple dead nettle got its name.
Purple dead nettle, however, is worthy of distinction. The entire above-ground plant is edible and nutritious, loaded with vitamin C, A, K, calcium, magnesium, manganese and flavonoids. Pinch off the uppermost portion of the plant, gathering a good many of the leafy flowering tops. Reserve a handful and blend the rest into a pesto along with other spring greens like chickweed and violet leaf. This pesto is lovely for bruschetta and pasta salad, but I recommend pizza. Smear some pesto on a crust, top with sauce and mozzarella and drop the reserved flowering heads on top before popping your pie in the oven. Purple dead nettle tops hold up well to heat and provide a beautiful adornment.
Purple dead nettle doesn’t stop at pesto and pizza. It’s a handy home remedy for bug bites, cuts, and scrapes. Being anti-inflammatory, astringent, and antimicrobial, it can cool inflamed tissue, reduce bleeding and lessen the likelihood of infection. Simply mash tops, moisten, and apply or infuse tops into olive oil and use topically.
Next time you stumble upon purple dead nettle, take a moment to appreciate this weedy wildflower. Perhaps in our admiration, a better name will come to mind... maybe purple pesto posy or purple pasture princess. What do y’all think? Surely, we can put purple dead nettle on the pedestal it deserves.