Q: What is that plant that has purple leaves and tiny pink blooms and is all over right now. I see it in large patches in fields. Is it good for anything?
I think you are talking about purple dead nettle, or as I tell my grandkids who are crazy about zombies, it is “The Zombie Plant”. I just do that because zombies are the rage right now and it captures the interest of the kids and of course we can’t rule out “creative license”. It is not really the name of the plant, however, since it is alive and yet called dead nettle, I thought the name appropriate. And yes, Cami it is good for many somethings and it is free for the picking! But first let’s look at where and when it grows.
Purple dead nettle appears in late winter and early spring and can last till fall if it’s not too hot and dry, however, here in the Shenandoah Valley, it usually blooms March through May. When you look out over a field and see a large patch–sometimes the whole field–of plants growing uninterrupted which give the impression of a subtle purple haze, it is probably purple or red dead nettle. If you get up close and personal, you will find tiny pink flowers amid the green and purple leaves. The triangular leaves are bunched at the top, start out green with the top leaves purple. The leaves are opposite each other and spring from a square stem. Hmm, what does that tell us?
Square stems denote plants as part of the mint family. Some people who munch on raw purple dead nettle say that they can taste a slight minty flavor. I just went outside and plucked off the top of a purple dead nettle and am chewing it up as I write this. (My husband asked what I was doing and then said this is true dedication!) I can detect little, if any, mint, however it does not have a bad flavor and would be a good wild addition to a spring salad.
One other thing, purple dead nettle is not related to stinging nettle. If it were, I definitely would not be munching on it! In fact, it is called “dead” not because it is a zombie plant, but because it doesn’t sting.
There are two other plants that pop up in the yard at the same time and that tend to be mistaken for purple dead nettle; henbit and ground ivy. Henbit has a striking deep red stem and the leaves are in whorls around this stem. All of the leaves are not bunched at the top and you can easily see the red stem between groups of leaves. Henbit does, however also have a square stem and similar flowers.
The perennial ground ivy is also know as Gill-over-the-ground and Creeping Charlie and as you may have guessed, grows low and sprawling, also has a square stem and small purple/lavender flowers. The leaves are roundish to kidney shaped with scalloped edges. Makes a nice ground cover and one man decided that he wants to get rid of the “useless” grass and let his whole yard be covered in ground ivy. Although there are several traditional uses listed in Petersen Field Guide Medicinal Plants and Herbs, there is also a caution listed that says it is toxic to horses and some people. After steeping the leaves in hot water and then drinking it “…Within five minutes tea produced swelling of throat and labored breathing, and resulted in difficulty sleeping that night…”. Remember, anyone can be allergic to anything, however, I choose not to use this herb or make tinctures with it.
Now, finally, let’s look at the properties and traditional uses of purple dead nettle. This little plant is nutritious and is high in Vitamin C, iron, fiber, quercetin (boosts the immune system) and antioxidants. It also has other vitamins, minerals and flavonoids. It has traditionally been used on cuts as an antiseptic and to stop bleeding as well helping the would heal. To use for this purpose, pick the leaves, “bruise” them and then place them on the cut. Purple dead nettle has also been used as a diuretic and to produce sweating. It is astringent and is considered a tonic and also has antifungal and anti- microbial properties. It is said to be helpful to allergy sufferers and may protect from secondary infections of the throat and bronchi.
And as if that isn’t enough for one little purple plant, from the website Herbs-Treat and Taste comes this tidbit of information…”It has been shown to effective against the E. Coli bacteria…” and Also has anti-inflammatory properties. An article on the livestrong.com website says that “…researchers discovered purple dead nettle had a wide range of antimicrobial and anti fungal properties. Extracts of purple dead nettle fought many microorganisms including staphylococcus, enterococcus, e. Coli, pseudomonas and candida. Purple dead nettle is a rich source of antibacterial essential oils such as germacrene D…”
To use purple dead nettle, you can pick the fresh leaves and add them to salads, soups, stews and sauces. You can steep the fresh or dried leave in hot water and make a tisane (you may want to add honey to tea or tisane) and be forewarned, purple dead nettle also has laxative properties. Or you could make a tincture by covering the fresh leaves with brandy or vodka and letting them soak for several weeks, and then straining the tincture and taking a drop or two as needed. You can also pick the leaves now, dry them and store them in a sealed container in a cool, darkish room or closet for future use.
So there you have it Cami. As you can see, this little zombie plant is full of life!
Important Note! The information in Wholistically Speaking is for educational purposes only and should not be used to diagnose and/or treat diseases. If you have a health problem, I highly recommend you consult a competent health practitioner and educate yourself before embarking on any course of treatment.