Sunday, April 10, 2016

A Sea of Purple

Spring is upon us in all her splendor, including this particular season’s signature sea of purple washing across people’s yards, over city park acres, through roadside ditches, and even spilling into farm fields and pastures. These tiny blooms set among frilly leaves welcome warming temperatures every year, but conditions this season seem especially suited to its growth. Commonly called henbit, this vegetation sporting tiny orchid-like flowers blends cheerfully with dandelions that brighten green lawns and irritate those who hate weeds. For some reason, this North African/Eurasian immigrant has outdone itself in the last few weeks.

As the days grow longer and more greenery unfurls in our area, a pinkish-purple carpet has overtaken what should be verdant lawns in every town I drive through. I know there are people like my mom who hate this invasion into their well-tended grass, but I’m inclined to forgive these tiny buds their trespasses and welcome them to town. Once I researched this relative newcomer to the plains, I found it had practical uses to match its eye-catching appearance.

Henbit or Lamium amplexicaule L. is member of the mint family. Although a member of Lamiaceae or mint clan, henbit doesn’t smell or taste like some of its more refreshing relatives. It comes by its common name because chickens love to eat it. Apparently, cranes and storks enjoy it as well because people in some regions of the country identify it as cranesbill, heronsbill, and storksbill. In addition to hens enjoying this gourmet treat, hummingbirds love to sip its nectar.

 For humans with exotic tastes, this plant is a perfect fit. Homo sapiens can dine on cleaned stems, flowers, and leaves harvested from unsprayed fields, raw in salads and smoothies, sautéed like kale or spinach, or brewed into teas. The plant said to taste either like kale or mushrooms is rich in iron, vitamins, and fiber, all positives for health enthusiasts. With such recommendations going for it, it’s surprising grocery stores don’t stock it every spring.

The explanation why these nutritious greens aren’t available right next to the kale at the local market might have something to do with the species ability to reproduce. A single plant can produce 2000 seeds a season, which makes me wish I had a savings account that offered such returns. Those who have planted one or two mint plants in the garden soon discover that these reproduce themselves much as cottontail bunnies do. Begin with two and after a couple of seasons, hundreds inhabit an area. This particular cousin to wintergreen, catnip, and spearmint apparently excels in this department. A drive through town confirms this.

The failure of this plant to thrive in the open market may have something to do with its negative qualities. I’ve already mentioned how easily it spreads. It has even more downsides. According to one source, field infestation results in diminished yields in small grain crops. In addition, authorities explain that it hosts disease-causing nematodes and fungi in soybeans and other cultivated plantings. Just reading this makes my skin crawl. Those aren’t advertisements to encourage this little plant to make itself at home on the prairie.

While henbit’s pretty flowers might capture a winter-dulled eye, and a gourmet diner may thrill at the idea of eating something picked from the wild, I’m thinking my mother may be right again. Perhaps this non-native species requires less tolerance. I’m sure chickens can find something to eat that doesn’t encourage nematodes and fungi.

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