Purple Dead Nettle: The Wild Food In Your Backyard

It’s amazing how many wild and free foods are available to us. You may be surprised to hear that many of the scornful weeds you have growing in your backyard are edible and medicinal. That’s right; with a keen eye and plant identification knowledge in your tool belt, you can start foraging for food and medicine without leaving the comfort of your home. 

One of the best wild foods to start with is purple dead nettle. It’s easy to identify, doesn’t have any toxic look-alikes, and is abundant throughout temperate regions of the United States. 

Before you head out to start nibbling, let’s make sure you have all the information you need about this beautiful wild plant. That includes what purple dead nettle is, its identifying characteristics, how to forage it, its medicinal benefits, and more. 

What Is Purple Dead Nettle?

purple dead nettle closeup

Purple dead nettle is an annual weed found in many people’s backyards. It’s an opportunistic plant that loves to follow human inhabitants and form patches in low, moist areas in fields and lawns. It’s a low-growing member of the mint family (Lamiaceae), and its scientific name is Lamium purpureum. 

Native to Europe and Asia, purple-dead nettle is considered an invasive weed in many parts of North America. While it does like to spread, I don’t think we should turn a disagreeing eye on this fuzzy little plant, for it is our Eurasian ancestors (for some of us) who brought it here. 

Whether some seeds hitched a ride on an unsuspecting traveler or it was brought here on purpose (more likely), I think it’s important to pay attention to these opportunistic plants. I believe that they often have a purpose our ancestors knew about, whether as food or medicine or both, that has been lost in the growth of our common society. 

Either way, the good news about it being a “weed” is that we don’t have to be careful about overharvesting it, which is the case for many native wild foods and medicinals. 

Purple dead nettle has a few common names that it goes by, including dead nettle, purple archangel, and red dead nettle. Even though “nettle” is in its common name, this plant is not a true nettle and isn’t in the same botanical family as true nettles (which is the Urticaceae). 

While purple dead nettle doesn’t resemble stinging nettle (Urtica dioica), its cousin, white dead nettle (Lamium album), does. Because it doesn’t have stinging hairs as true nettles do, it’s referred to as ‘dead’ nettle.

How to Identify Purple Dead Nettle

purple dead nettle blooming

Purple dead nettle is one of the first plants to emerge in early spring and likes to grow in moist areas in light shade to full sun. It’s often found in fields, lawns, near roadsides, and meadows. It grows in clusters and usually grows alongside other medicinal and edible plants such as chickweed (Stellaria media) and plantain (Plantago spp.). 

As a member of the mint family, purple archangel has a square stem, opposite leaves, and characteristic two-lipped purple flowers. The leaves are cordate (heart-shaped) and are extremely fuzzy with distinct venation (vein patterning). Near the tip of the leaf blade and along the margins, you can see long silvery-white hairs. 

As the plant matures, the uppermost leaves at the top of the stem take on a beautiful dark purple color and are more triangular or spade-shaped than heart-shaped. Not only is this purple color the source for many of its common names, but it’s also a distinctive characteristic to look for. These dark purple leaves help attract pollinators to the diminutive flowers somewhat hidden behind the leaves. 

The bright purple flowers appear in early to mid-spring. They are tubular with a top and bottom “lip” (botanically known as bilabiate corolla). This bottom lip splits in two to form two lobes, each with a dark purple splotch to help lure in hungry pollinators. 

These flowers are a favorite for pollinators, especially bees, who don’t have many nectar-rich flowers to feed from in early spring. Once fertilized, these petals fall off and leave behind a slender calyx that houses four small seeds (botanically known as nutlets). 

If you’re familiar with the mint family, you’ll know that most of its members are noticeably aromatic, such as lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) and peppermint (Mentha x piperita). This is one family trait purple dead nettle doesn’t have, as it is not overly aromatic. That said, I do think the plant has a distinct scent of its own, but it’s very mild and not at all aromatic like its brethren. This lack of strong scent is an identifying characteristic of its own. 

Purple Dead Nettle Look-Alikes

Lamium amplexicaule
Lamium amplexicaule

Thankfully, purple dead nettle doesn’t have any toxic look-alikes, which is helpful for the budding forager. That said, it does have one look-alike that it’s often confused for, which is henbit (Lamium amplexicaule). 

Henbit is closely related to purple dead nettle as it’s in the same genus. The main difference between the two is that henbit’s flowers protrude up and away from the stem, and its upper leaves grow so close together they seem to form a circle around the upper stem. Purple dead nettle leaves have short petioles (leaf stalks), whereas henbit’s leaves grow as a whorl directly around the stem. 

The good news is that henbit is also edible. So, if you were to confuse the two, you wouldn’t be in trouble. However, it is imperative to 100% identify a wild plant before you eat it. That’s why it’s important to practice 100% confident identification even with wild greens that don’t have toxic look-alikes, as it makes you a safer and better forager. 

Foraging & Harvesting

harvesting purple dead nettle

Both the leaves and the flowers of purple dead nettle are edible. Harvest the young purple tops before and while it’s flowering. The lower leaves and stems are fibrous; the top few inches of young growth are tender and more tasty.

Avoid harvesting purple dead nettle after it’s gone to seed, as the calyxes surrounding the seeds become sharp, brittle, and unpleasant to eat. 

If you have a patch in your yard, snipping off the tender new growth will encourage the plant to flush out more tender tips, making it a cut-and-come-again edible. 

With purple dead nettle, you only need to harvest a little at a time, depending on what you’re using it for. This isn’t a wild food that you want to eat a large amount of because the leaves are quite fuzzy, lending a prominent texture. It also has somewhat of a strong “mushroomy” flavor. 

Rather than eating it in large quantities on its own, purple dead nettle is best mixed with other greens. It can be used in salads, smoothies, steamed alongside spinach and kale, or made into a pesto with basil and other wild greens such as wild spinach, chickweed, and nettles.

The flavor and texture of purple dead nettle improve with cooking, so I like to throw it into soups and stews or sautee it with onions and garlic. I also enjoy nibbling it fresh when I’m out on walks or in the garden. 

Nutritional Value

Many herbalists and wild food foragers claim the purple dead nettle is highly nutritious, which makes sense as it’s a dark leafy green with flavonoid-rich purple leaves. Furthermore, wild edibles are usually always more nutrient-dense than cultivated vegetables. 

The following information about the nutritional value of purple dead nettles is what I’ve found from other herbalists/wild food foragers, and it has not been verified by scientific study (not that I can find at least – but they must be deriving this information from some source). With that, I’ve found that purple dead nettle is high in minerals such as iron and calcium and vitamins, including vitamins C, A, and K. 

What has been confirmed by scientific studies is the presence of antioxidant, anti-inflammatory compounds that can benefit systemic inflammation and help prevent heart disease. 

Purple Dead Nettle Medicinal Benefits

purple dead nettle plants in a forest

Purple dead nettle is more common as a wild edible than it is as a medicinal herb, though I wonder if this might change in the future due to its abundance and emerging research on the topic. 

Its cousin, white dead nettle (Lamium album), is the common medicinal species used in Europe and Asia, though it shares a similar molecular profile as purple dead nettle. Given that they share similar constituents, it’s fair to assume they have overlapping medicinal uses and that purple dead nettle can be used similarly to white dead nettle. 

However, they are different in that purple dead nettle is more drying and tonifying to the tissues. White dead nettle contains mucilaginous compounds; thus, it is more moistening to the tissues. 

Based on the research and traditional uses of purple dead nettle (and white dead nettle), its primary herbal actions are anti-inflammatory, astringent, antimicrobial, immunostimulating, and vulnerary (wound healing). It also possesses’ antihistamine properties, which shows it may be beneficial in the relief of seasonal allergy symptoms. 

Traditionally, it’s been used as a wound-healing herb for insect bites, rashes, cuts, bruises, and scrapes. Due to its prevalent anti-inflammatory compounds and astringency, it would be of great value for wounds associated with swelling and inflammation.

For topical first-aid, purple dead nettle can be used as a poultice or herbal infusion wash. 

One of the primary compounds found in purple dead nettle is polyphenols, which are antioxidant compounds. Antioxidants prevent free-radical damage from occurring, so they are incredibly important for the cardiovascular system and to prevent the onset of several diseases, including cancer. Studies show that the antioxidant activity in purple dead nettle is higher than its cousin, white dead nettle. 

Other herbalist claim purple dead nettles is also a diaphoretic, diuretic, and laxative. As a diaphoretic, it is useful in supporting the process of a fever by inducing perspiration and opening up the pores to release internal heat. Being a diuretic, purple dead nettle can help flush excess fluid from the tissues and out through the kidneys, stimulating the kidneys into greater activity. 

Though some consider it to be a laxative, I don’t believe it’s very strong and would require large amounts of it to induce this action. That said, everyone’s sensitivity levels are different, and it’s always best to start with a small amount of a new plant to see how your body reacts rather than overdo it and have a bad reaction (this is true for any new wild edible or herb you try). 

The medicinal properties of purple dead nettle are due to the presence of various plant constituents, including prominent chemicals such as phenolics, essential oils, terpenes, and polyphenols (among many others). 

While I’m not as familiar with using purple dead nettle as a medicine, as I’ve mostly known it as a wild edible, I’m encouraged by these findings to start experiencing its healing potential for myself. I’m excited to drink it as a tea and even dry some of the tender tops for future use and see what I discover! 

How to Make a Purple Dead Nettle Tea

purple dead nettle tea

Making a purple dead nettle tea (herbal infusion) is incredibly easy. You can use fresh or dried plant material. To make the tea, you’ll need a kettle and a loose-leaf tea steeper. If you don’t have a loose-leaf tea steeper, you can always use a mason jar (and strain the plant material through a cheesecloth or coffee filter). 

Next, gather a few tender purple dead nettle tops and add them to your loose-leaf tea steeper or jar. Pour 8 oz of boiled water over the herb, cover, and steep for 10-20 minutes. If you’re using dry material, use 1 tsp – 1 tbsp of plant material to 8oz of water.

How to Dry

One way to preserve purple dead nettle for future use, whether in a recipe or to use in tea, is to dry the purple flowering tops. To do this, you’ll need a screen, hanging basket, or dehydrator. I personally prefer a screen/hanging basket. 

Place your freshly harvested purple dead nettle tops on the screen, making sure to not overcrowd or layer them (you don’t want them all touching as you want to promote adequate airflow). Place your screen or hanging basket in a well-ventilated area that doesn’t receive direct sunlight. 

After a few weeks, you can test the dryness of your purple dead nettle by crumbling it in your fingers. If the leaves easily break apart and you’re confident they’re fully dry, store them in an air-tight container (such as a mason jar) and place in a cool, dark area (such as a pantry or closet). 

Happy & Safe Foraging!

Now that you’ve received the necessary information you need about how to safely and correctly harvest purple dead nettle, I hope you get out there and try it for yourself! Perhaps you try a nibble of it out in the yard or bring it in for your next soup recipe. 

Either way, know that this is just the beginning of your wild food journey. May purple dead nettle be the perfect introduction to a lifetime of enjoying fresh and edible wild plants. Happy (and safe) foraging!

FAQs

Should I get rid of purple dead nettle?

If purple dead nettle is in your yard, there’s no reason to remove it. While it may form patches here and there, it won’t take over your lawn. It’s edible and medicinal, so you can even harvest it for your own use. Plus, it’s highly beneficial for hungry pollinators in early spring. 

Can you touch purple dead nettle?

Yes! Because purple dead nettle is not a true nettle, it doesn’t have any stinging hairs, so it is completely safe to touch. 

Can chickens eat purple dead nettle?

Purple dead nettle is safe for chickens, and they will probably enjoy it as a fresh and nutritious leafy green. 

Is purple dead nettle poisonous to dogs and cats?

No, purple dead nettle is not poisonous to dogs, cats, or any animal (including humans).

What is the difference between dead nettles and stinging nettles?

Purple dead nettle and stinging nettles are two completely different plants belonging to different plant families. Purple dead nettle is in the mint family (Lamiaceae), and nettles is in the nettle family (Urticaceae). Purple dead nettle is called “nettle” because it shares a mild resemblance to true nettles. 

Is purple dead nettle safe?

Yes, there have been no adverse reactions or safety considerations reported for purple dead nettle. It may have a mild laxative effect, so it’s best to eat or drink it in smaller quantities. 

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As an herbalist, my goal is to connect people with the healing powers of nature. Through my writings and herbal concoctions, I aim to guide others toward a healthier lifestyle using time-honored methods. With over four years of experience studying herbalism and organic gardening, I offer my knowledge to inspire others to explore the natural world, cultivate their own gardens, and rediscover their bond with the earth.