The Dead of Winter, Week Ending 3/3/2019

The weather in central MD in early March continues to alternate between soggy and frozen… when it isn’t both simultaneously! Even today, the forecast calls for anywhere from four to eight inches of snow. I have not tried to dig up the wild Jerusalem artichokes because the ground remains frozen.

Despite the cold and damp, some wild edibles continue to thrive. This week, I’ll be talking about one of the less appreciated greens available this time of year: purple dead nettle (Lamium purpureum). It is as ubiquitous as field garlic, spreading in massive tangled carpets across any disturbed ground it can reach.  Purple dead nettle is most recognizable in early spring, when the purple flowers and leaf tips blanket roadsides and fields.

Purple dead nettle is a member of the mint family, and shares the characteristic square stem cross section of other mints. (As does henbit, it’s more frilly cousin, which I may discuss in a future post.) The leaves are heart-shaped, especially when younger, and become more elongated and pointy as the season progresses.  The younger leaves may be confused with garlic mustard first-year leaves, and I discuss the differences here. The leaves also look similar to stinging nettle (Urtica dioica), but the fine hairs on the leaves do not sting – hence the name “dead” nettle.

Purple Dead Nettle Leaves and Flowers
Purple Dead Nettle Leaves and Flowers

As the season progresses, the tips turn purple as the flowers begin to form. At this stage, purple dead nettle is very recognizable. (You can see some icon photos on the Maryland Biodiversity Project site.)

Despite the small leaf size, it is easy to harvest dead nettle in quantity. If you find a healthy patch, you can collect entire lengths of stem, with the leaves attached. Once back in your warm kitchen, you can remove the leaves from the stems if you prefer, but both are edible. If using the greens in a recipe (for instance, as a replacement for spinach), I prefer just the leaves. Because of their relatively small size, they do not need to be chopped prior to use.

Cooking with Dead Nettle
Cooking with Dead Nettle

Purple dead nettle is a great solution for “my recipe calls for spinach, but I don’t want to drive to the store to buy some.” Yes, I have actually done this myself! The photo above shows dead nettle used in place of spinach when I made Creamy Tuscan Garlic Chicken last week.

The cooked leaves hold their texture very nicely in sauces and offer a mild chewiness compared to other greens. The stems, in turn, are crunchy so work better sauteed or steamed with the leaves as a vegetable side dish. While purple dead nettle can be eaten raw as well, I am not a fan of the slightly fuzzy texture to the leaves.

Generally speaking, I would choose wild greens like stinging nettle or lambs quarter over dead nettle for most culinary uses. But in early March, we take whatever edibles nature sees fit to give us!

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