What Is Henbit and How Do I Get Rid of It?
Although colorful in the spring, henbit becomes a nuisance if allowed to proliferate. Here's how to keep this aggressive weed under control.
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A popular snack for grazing chickens (hence the name), henbit is found throughout the U.S., and it adds a dash of springtime color with its small purple blossoms. These seemingly innocent flowers, however, can spell trouble for your lawn.
If you notice a proliferation of plants sprouting multiple square green-to-purple stems from a single taproot, and sporting pairs of heart-shaped, scallop-edged leaves and light purple flowers, say hello to henbit. Here’s what to do to keep an invasion in check.
What Is Henbit?
According to Dave Holmes of The Grounds Guys, henbit is a low-growing annual broadleaf plant commonly found not only in lawns and cultivated fields, but also wild pastures and along roadsides. Its flowers are important to spring pollinators and provide nectar to bees, but it’s a highly invasive plant that can rob your turfgrass of nutrients if not kept under control.
“Unfortunately, this weed’s flowers result in an abundance of seeds — up to 2,000 per plant,” says Drew Wagner of Sod Solutions. “Henbit seeds germinate during the fall and through the winter. Plants remain relatively small and dormant until the early spring when they grow rapidly and the problem in your lawn becomes noticeable.” These winter weeds are hardy in much of the United States.
Is Henbit a Weed?
If you consider a weed to be any wild plant growing where you don’t want it — your manicured lawn, for example — then henbit is a weed. Yet many homeowners tolerate some of these plants, given their benefits.
“Henbit’s attractive appearance, importance as a food source for bees, edibility and ability to thrive in many climates means that it is occasionally allowed to grow where other weeds are not,” Holmes says.
Is Henbit Safe?
Although it does not smell like mint, henbit is a member of the mint family and is safe to eat and touch. “It is an edible plant in which the young leaves, shoots, stems and flowers can be eaten raw or cooked,” says Holmes. “It has a slightly sweet and peppery flavor, similar to celery.”
Henbit does not have any toxic lookalikes, although Wagner says it can be confused with purple dead nettle, another edible wild plant. “Purple dead nettle produces triangular leaves that have a distinct reddish-purple color, however, which helps to tell these plants apart,” Wagner says.
How To Get Rid of Henbit
A scattering of henbit in your yard can add some pretty spring color and a food source for your neighborhood bees. Here’s how you can cull the numbers and keep it from spreading out of control:
Hand-pulling: If you pull the plants individually, Holmes says make sure to remove the entire fibrous root system or the weed will grow back. Hand pulling is most effective when the plants are still small and before they produce seeds. Moisten the surrounding soil and dig around the plant with a weeding hoe to dislodge the entire root.
Corn gluten meal: If applied before the henbit plant seeds germinate, corn gluten meal prevents the shoots from establishing roots. Timing is vital. If you apply corn gluten meal after germination, it acts as a fertilizer and encourages the weed’s growth. Problem areas may need to be treated monthly to suppress all the henbit seeds.
Chemical herbicides: Although effective, chemical herbicides are toxic and can harm children, pets and wildlife. If not applied with care, the poisonous chemicals can contaminate groundwater and damage your turfgrass and nearby plants. If you do go with chemical weed killer, Wagner says complete control of henbit is easier in the fall if you treat the plants with a post-emergent option while they are still young and small, or put out a pre-emergent herbicide before seeds germinate.
How To Prevent Henbit From Coming Back
Timing is everything with henbit. “It’s important to control henbit before it flowers,” Holmes says. “This will keep the weed from producing and releasing its seeds. Waiting until after it flowers will result in seeds being spread around, so new weeds germinate in the same general area the next growing season.”
Other important rules for preventing a henbit comeback include:
Promoting lawn health: “One of the best ways to control henbit is to grow a thick lawn so weeds struggle to compete,” Holmes says. “A regular fertilization program for your lawn will help it get the nutrients it needs to grow thick and dense, leaving little space for weeds to grow.”
Mowing to the correct height: Higher is better, because it promotes thick turfgrass with a deep root system that will crowd out weeds.
Ensuring sufficient drainage and sunlight: Henbit thrives in lawns that are overly moist or shady. Improve drainage by aerating your soil or adding coarse organic material like sawdust, sand or gypsum. Increase sunlight by pruning trees and shrubs where they create shady patches in your lawn.