Central Texas Garden Weeds: Henbit (Lamium amplexicaule), Chickweed (Stellaria media), Mouse Ear Chickweed (Cerastium vulgatum), and Lady's Bedstraw (Galium amplexicaule).

By Cynthia W. Mueller
Master Gardener, Galveston County
Seedling Henbit, Lamium amplexicaule
Seedling Henbit, Lamium amplexicaule
Henbit, Lamium amplexicaule
Henbit, Lamium amplexicaule
Chickweed seedling, Stellaria media
Chickweed seedling, Stellaria media
Mature Chickweed, Stellaria media
Mature Chickweed, Stellaria media
Bedstraw or Catchweed, Galium aparine
Mature strands of Bedstraw
Mature strands of Bedstraw, Galium aparine
(Courtesy of Dr. Billy Warrick, Texas AgriLife Extension Service, San Angelo, TX)

Winter weeds have a habit of growing while the gardener's back is turned, or while he or she is inside, attempting to keep warm. They are certainly far easier to dispose of if steps are taken to review all areas of the garden on a schedule, eliminating small beginnings before they grow to smother their neighbors. Here are some illustrations of what these weeds look like when they are quite small, and are easier to kill.

Henbit (Lamium aplexicaule) is a member of the Lamiaceae or Mint family, and one of the most common Central Texas weeds, originally an escape from Europe-Eurasia-North Africa. There are five closely related species. A good clue for recognizing Henbit is the fact that the upper leaves encircle the stem. It is relished by chickens and has been consumed by people as a pot-herb in the past. Another common name is 'Dead-nettle' ("dead" meaning not a stinging nettle). A close relative is L. purpurea, or Purple Dead Nettle.

Henbit has multiple stems from a single taproot, masses of many soft, slightly hairy leaves, and small flowers that are purple in color. It has been a well known weed in Europe and England for centuries - the early herbalist John Gerard wrote of baking henbit flowers with sugar for desserts or serving it in a distilled form.

For gardeners henbit is undesirable because the many stems can grow to be 6-8 inches long and sprawl over more desirable plants nearby. Although they may be controlled by pre-emergent herbicides, getting rid of young plants with a hoe is probably the fastest method.

Common Chickweed (Stellaria media), also known as 'starweed', is a plant that has both good and bad qualities. It is a member of the Caryophyllaceae, or Pink, family. As soon as the soil cools, it appears in the late fall and persists until the hotter days of late spring finally burn it off. It is just as at home in the winter lawn as it is in the flower bed. The plant has weak stems with masses of bright green, shiny leaves and small starry off-white or yellow flowers. Chickweed is extremely tender, and has a tendency to break off as it is pulled up. The tiny, stringy stump is solidly rooted into the ground and will grow back into a vigorous plant while the gardener is not looking. It can be killed with boiling water from a teakettle if growing in the cracks between flagstones or bricks in a patio area. If it is not feasible to use pre-emergent herbicide on chickweed, this or hoeing out very small plants are good methods of control.

Although chickweed is annoying to gardeners, it does have good qualities if growing in the proper place in the garden. Chickweed is edible, and the seed is sometimes sold commercially to market gardeners for the high-dollar restaurant trade. It is considered one of the best foods for baby birds, and this is where chickweed got its name. Canary raisers used to say that if there was no commercial source of birdseed due to some disaster, broods of young canaries could be raised on the greens and seeds of chickweed alone. Gardeners who are interested in supporting local bird life should leave a little chickweed under the edge of a hedge or some similar spot.

Mouse Ear Chickweed (Cerastium vulgatum) is also a member of the Caryophyllaceae (Pink) family, but its texture is coarser and the leaves and stems are much tougher and are hairy. It also has many-petalled small white star-like flowers, and makes unsightly displays in lawns and flower beds during the winter. This chickweed is also edible, but is less digestible and desirable. The USDA indicates that this plant is present all over the United States, and even in Greenland, and that it might be considered biennial or even perennial in some cases.

Mouse Ear is capable of growing in more exposed parts of the landscape. While ordinary chickweed is finally only growing in the protection of other plants as the season becomes hotter, Mouse Ear will still be growing out over the sidewalk, in some cases. It is thought to be a native of Europe.

Catchweed Bedstraw (Galium aparine) is one of the most irritating winter weeds for gardeners in Central Texas. From small beginnings, it creates long, tangled, climbing masses of weak, scratchy, clinging stems with up to 8 narrow leaves with small hooks that radiate out from the stem like the spokes of a wheel. Stems can be as much as 3 feet long. When one part of the clump is pulled, more and more of the adjacent sticky plant matter keeps coming. This is one of the worst "smotherers" of desirable crops. Many people are allergic to the plant, and must wear gloves and long sleeves to keep from having reddish, raised skin eruptions that itch for several days. The flowers are greenish white and not very noticeable. Even the small green seedpods are covered with clasping hairs.

Galium aparine is a member of the Rubiaceae, or Madder family. Some of its common names include cleavers, bedstraw, catchweed and stickywilly. Although "our" bedstraw is native to the United States, the Lamium family has many members and there are numerous other interesting species, some of which have been used to color cheese or curdle milk. The "Our-Lady's Bedstraw" (Galium verum), originally from Europe but now often found in the United States, was said to have been used by the Virgin Mary to stuff bedclothes at the Nativity and was supposedly gathered for stuffing purposes by medieval ladies, as well. Anther well known relative of Catchweed Bedstraw is Sweet Woodruff (G. odoratum) which when dried has the odor of newmown hay and vanilla, due to coumarin content. This has been a standard ingredient for "May wine" for centuries. Other members of the Rubiaceae family include coffee, gardenias, chinchona, the quinine tree, Ixora, and Morinda.

The vigilant gardener will remove small plants of Bedstraw when first noticed. At this time they'll be easily pulled up and disposed of. Bedstraw stems are tough towards the bottom of the plant and difficult to completely remove when more mature.

In the past, all of these weeds have been used as foodstuffs and herbal remedies - although probably were not very tasty. Consumption of Sweet Woodruff is now confined only to cases where it is incorporated into alcoholic drinks.

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