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It's Spring (Well, Almost)

Updated: Apr 12

Here in Tennessee, it’s starting to warm up occasionally, and feel like spring.  New greens are popping up, waiting to be identified and eaten, and I hope you are ready to go!  However, before we go to tasting, let’s review a few precautions.  Always be sure to correctly identify the plant you are going to eat.  When in doubt, do without. Only harvest in areas free from contamination, and leave some for others to harvest.  Please refer to the January article to get the full precautionary statement.  Remember that what you put in your body is your responsibility, so don’t take it lightly.


The following plants are ones that just started to grow around my area and will be readily available for a while.  Remember that further north, it may take another week or two for you to begin to see these plants depending on your weather.

HENBIT (Lamium amplexicaule)

This annual or biannual plant is in the mint family which means that it has square stems and leaves that are opposite.  Leaves at the base will have short stems or petioles, but leaves on flower-producing stems will clasp the stem, creating the illusion of one leaf encircling the stem.  The leaves and stems are slightly hairy, and the purple flowers are tubular and tend to stick out past the leaves. 

The stems are green, but can turn purplish with age.  The leaves tend to be rounded with scalloped or weakly lobed edges.  This plant usually grows in waste places, lawns, gardens, and roadsides.  It can grow in dense colonies, but I usually see them in large, scattered colonies or just sprinkled around.  The earliest plants in the spring can be found close to concrete, large rocks, buildings, and other places that hold and reflect the sun's warmth.  It will die, or die back during the heat of summer but will often come up in time to flower again in the fall.

 This is a low-growing plant that can grow up to 14”, but I usually find it at 6-8”.  The stem, leaves, and flowers are edible and are usually consumed raw, cooked, or as tea.  I’ve only eaten them raw, and they have a slightly earthy taste that’s a little different, but not unpleasant.  Because they are slightly hairy (which gives the leaves a roughish feel), some people will only eat them cooked which lessens the hairy texture.  Some lookalikes are purple deadnettle, ground ivy (which I wrote about in the February article),  and possibly Persian speedwell (Veronica persica).  Purple deadnettle (edible) will have leaves that look somewhat similar but will be hairier, thicker, and have pointier tips.  The upper leaves will often have a purple tint which the henbit does not.  Ground ivy (edible) has a thinner, vinelike stem that has rootlets growing from the leaf nodes, and the flowers are bluer.  Persian speedwell leaves can look like young henbit leaves, but speedwell has thin round stems and is very hairy on leaf and stem.  The flowers are blue and white with dark veins in the petals.

PURPLE DEADNETTLE (Lamium purpureum)

This annual plant in the mint family has a smooth, square stem with heart or triangular-shaped leaves.  The leaves are finely serrated (little teeth/notches), hairy, and have a somewhat leathery feel.  Leaves are opposite, with lower leaves (and leaves of younger plants) green while upper leaves are purplish.  The flowers are tubular and purple in color, looking a lot like henbits except that the flowers of purple deadnettle tend to hide in the leaves. 

The stems are green tending to purple when older.  This 8-10” plant often grows in dense colonies in waste places, lawns, gardens, and roadsides.  At a distance, it can look like a brown-purplish swath across someone’s yard or field.  The leaves, flowers, and stems are edible, and like henbit are eaten raw, cooked, or as tea.  I have never liked deadnettle as much as henbit because it is hairier and tastes (to me) more earthy.  Cooking may take care of that or it can be used in smoothies.  You will definitely get more to eat as it has more leaves than henbit.  Beware that it can have a mild laxative effect if eaten in large doses.  Because of other medicinal benefits, don’t eat this if you are pregnant or nursing.  Lookalikes are henbit (edible), ground ivy (edible), see henbit lookalikes for descriptions. 

Also a lookalike, young foxglove (poisonous) leaves can look like young purple deadnettle as the leaves are hairy and have a similar texture.  Foxglove leaves are more elongated in shape than deadnettle and the whole plant has a different look/shape.  That being said, because of the deadly nature of foxglove, don’t take any chances but wait until you can positively identify purple deadnettle in all its life stages.  Once the deadnettle produces purple leaves and blooms, there are no poisonous lookalikes.  Lastly, Persian speedwell (picture on right) leaves can look similar to the leaves of younger deadnettle.  I have recently seen postings saying that this plant is edible, but have yet to verify myself so do your own research on it.  See henbit lookalikes for a brief description and picture on the right to locate differences.

WILD VIOLET (Viola sororia)

This is one of my favorite plants to eat as the leaves are usually fairly tender and have a pleasant taste.  Remember that “wild edible” means you can eat it and it will benefit you, not that it tastes good.  Wild violet is in the taste good category, and I enjoy it whenever I can.  This short-lived perennial likes the shade but will grow in the sun if conditions are good.  Look for it in woods, thickets, shaded parts of yards, or places with rich soil.  They will also grow in full sun if other conditions are favorable.  The violet has heart-shaped basal leaves with leafless flower stalks.  The 5 petaled flowers are usually blue, but can sometimes be white or yellow and have a single flower per stalk.  When it’s flowering, the violet is easy to identify as the flowers are very unique.  Without flowers, the leaves can be easily overlooked especially in early spring when they are still small.  The new leaves start slightly rolled and unfurl (see bottom right of picture at left), growing flatter as they age.  The leaves often have a glossy look to them which fades as they age and have serrated (toothed) margins. 

The leaves and flowers of the plant are edible and are usually eaten raw, but the leaves are sometimes cooked as greens.  The flowers can be used to liven up salads or made into a jelly.  I’ve always wondered what violet jelly tastes like, but I’m not a cook.  If there are any adventurous souls out there who make some, I’d love a taste!  The leaves are mucilaginous (like aloe) so they can help soothe your digestive tract if needed and are also high in vitamin C.   The plant by itself can appear as a small mound of leaves, but if interspersed with grass or as a solid groundcover it will appear flatter in shape and grow 4-6 inches in height.  Be aware that there are other species of violet, which grow deep in the woods or pristine environments.  If the flower is a violet, but the leaf has a different shape than the violet we are discussing, don’t eat it.  It may be edible, but I have heard that some of the deeper woodland violets may not be edible so do some research if you have them in your area and are interested in eating them.  The lookalike you should be aware of is the lesser celandine (Ficaria verna) in the buttercup family which has the same habitat as the violet.  Its dark, green, shiny leaves are similar in shape to violets, but margins will be smooth or have rounded teeth.  The flowers are yellow and have many petals.  Though this toxic plant is similar to wild violet, the flowers help make a positive ID, so if you are uncertain if the plant you are looking at is wild violet, wait for flowers and be certain.

Happy foraging! 



About Me:

John Miller loves the outdoors and enjoys learning about all the things the Creator has made.  He enjoys hunting, fishing, backpacking, and finding new moths.  While looking into prepping in 2008, he realized that developing skills such as knowing wild edibles and bushcraft skills were more important than storing food.   Ever since then he has been learning and slowly working on the skills of these two disciplines.  He currently lives in Cleveland, TN with his wife Rachel and six children.


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