As I have been driving the back roads of Tennessee the last few days, I have noticed an interesting purple hue forming across the landscape of our state’s countryside. A purple flower that has taken over fields, yards and spaces that once contained vegetation of some type in months past is forming this amazing early spring hue and it is not going unnoticed. It is starting to cause a lot of talk around gathering places that often have been used for other conversation rather than purple flowers on weeds. But, sure enough, grown men have started questioning why henbit is taking over just as it did back in 2006, when it appeared in mass numbers on acreage, covering it like a huge quilt on your grandmother’s featherbed.
I have seen this plant all of my life, but until that spring in ’06 and now this spring, I have never seen it cover almost everything around the homestead, and it’s even showing up statewide. Whenever I have major weed questions to occur, I go to a book given to me and autographed by Edward W. Chester back in 1997. Mr. Chester and William H. Ellis are the creators of “Wildflowers of the Land Between the Lakes Region, Kentucky and Tennessee,” and the book is a must to help identify growing wildflowers in our state. The book was created for the Center for Field Biology at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville. But before you start calling me, asking where you can get this book, I suggest you contact APSU in Clarksville, and I know they would be glad to help you. My copy is a treasured item used by myself around the farm, and I sure wouldn’t part with it.
I wrote about this purple takeover back in 2006, and think maybe I should say something about it again, since it looks like it may be the flower of choice this spring. The book says that henbit is a member of the mint family and its name is really Lamium. If you want the full Latin name it is Lamium amplexicaule L., but for my purpose, it will be plain old henbit. The book suggests that it got its common name due to chickens liking the early spring foliage that normally appears in April through early summer, but may also appear in March, which it has accomplished this year. It germinates in the fall, and because of the warm, dry weather we experienced late last year, we are seeing it in abundance this spring. We also had a chance to harvest most fields early last fall, allowing for a perfect place for all the henbit seed to germinate in abundance. This is one reason you see fields of the flowers blooming. It is a plant that has been with us for sometime with its origin in Eurasis and Africa.
Being very aggressive, it has spread throughout Tennessee and most of North America. It is almost a perfect plant when it comes to survival. The University of Missouri reports that the plant is tolerant of sun or shade, heat or cold. From a report I found on the Internet, they seem to echo what we are seeing here in the Volunteer State. They said, “In cultivated areas that get tilled regularly, the plant can form large ‘seas of pink’ in the spring. The plant can grow from small pieces of its stem, so chopping the plant only helps it spread. It also grows well from seed.”
This purple aggressor has more than a few names. Besides henbit, it also goes by chickweed, which I guess the example quoted earlier here about the chickens liking it, helps to verify those two names. Whichever name you use, if you ever have to pull it out of a garden or flowerbed by hand, you may also give it a few names of your own.
The good news I found out in my henbit facts search, is that as a winter annual, they are more noticeable in the year of their establishment. As grasses grow, fields are planted, and turf density increases after being worked and renovated, Henbit will not persist after the following spring. Back in 2006, I suggested that this could be one of our most noticeable years of the purple hue plague. However, that was my speculation and not from a real weed professional, so I guess that I proved you have to take what I say with a grain of salt. I do have a degree in plant and soil science, but I do have the ability to kill helpless plants at times, not really meaning to, so my opinion is just as good as anyone’s.
If you like the color purple, enjoy the “seas of purple and pink” this spring and just use it as a sign of spring making its return. Hopefully, henbit will not be a major problem, and by summer its presence will only be in a photograph or our memory.
Written by Pettus L. Read for the Tennessee Farm Bureau Federation. He may be contacted by e-mail at email@example.com.