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Three easily confused spring flowers

Three easily confused springtime flowers are commonly seen in Midwestern lawns, gardens, fields, empty lots, and other untended, disturbed-habitat locations: purple deadnettle (Lamium purpureum), henbit (Lamium amplexicaule), and creeping Charlie (Glechoma hederacea). While these flowers are similar, they are actually pretty distinct on close inspection. Below we have provided illustrations of each of these plants, along with comments on how to identify them.

These plants are "invasive species," whatever that means. We will point out: 1) so were oak trees, once, and 2) the term is applied by the most invasive species our planet has ever seen. Anyway, there is no getting these plants out of the Midwest (or anywhere else) now, so we might as well learn to enjoy their beauty.

Midwestern range
midwestern range
for all four flowers

Lamium purpureum (purple deadnettle)

Purple deadnettle is an erect plant that is usually about 6–12 inches high. Its triangular to heart-shaped leaves are tightly packed near the apex of the stem, arranged in pairs that are rotated 90 degrees from the pairs immediately above and below. "Red deadnettle" is another common name for this plant.

Lamium purpureum
flowers are small and pink to purple, emerging from underneath the leaves


Lamium purpureum
leaves are initially green . . .

 

Lamium purpureum
. . . but become purple near the top of the plant . . .

 

Lamium purpureum
. . . and eventually fade to yellowish



Lamium amplexicaule (henbit)

Henbit is a more sprawling plant than purple deadnettle; while young plants can stand erect, older plants lean and crawl. The leaves are not at all triangular or heart-shaped, and rather than being tightly packed at the top of the stem, they are arranged in well-spaced groups, with lots of stem between each leaf group.

Lamium amplexicaule
flowers are very similar to the flowers of purple deadnettle, but are more conspicuous, since they're not as hidden by the leaves


Lamium amplexicaule
leaf clusters are wrapped around the stem; note the large gaps between clusters

 

Lamium amplexicaule
henbit can fill entire fields before plowing . . .

Lamium amplexicaule
. . . and the plant will grow just about anywhere. Note the sprawling stature



Glechoma hederacea (creeping Charlie)

Creeping Charlie is a sprawling plant, like henbit—but it does not get as high, and its flowers are purple to blue rather than pink to red. Midwestern lawns are often colonized by this plant, which spreads quickly with long, rooting rhizomes. "Ground ivy" is another name for this plant.

Glechoma hederacea
plants are often seen in dense colonies


Glechoma hederacea
leaves are opposite and round-ish, with broadly toothed edges

 

Glechoma hederacea
flowers are tubular, with elongated lower lips that serve as "landing pads" for pollinators




Which plant is which?

Here are unlabeled scanner images of specimens representing the three plants discussed above. Can you identify them?


an identification test

 

an identification test

 

an identification test



References: GN Jones 1971, Wilkinson & Jaques 1972, RL Jones 2005, Voss & Reznicek 2012, Kurz 2014, Mohlenbrock 2014, Hilty 2020, USDA 2020.



Kuo, Michael & Melissa Kuo (May, 2021). Three easily confused spring flowers. Retrieved from the midwestnaturalist.com website: www.midwestnaturalist.com/three_spring_flowers.html

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