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Gardening 101: Dead Nettles

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Gardening 101: Dead Nettles

May 31, 2021

Dead Nettles, Lamium: “Colorful Carpet”

I need to start with some honesty. Dead nettle is one of those plants that almost has everything going for it, until it doesn’t. The promise is that Lamiums are fast-growing perennial ground cover or container plants that brighten partly sunny spots and produce charming flowers. The reality is that this hardy opportunist, if left unchecked, can become unsightly and sometimes invasive.

Please keep reading to learn about this plant with a cautionary tale.

Lamium amplexicaule. Photograph by Andreas Rockstein via Flickr.
Above: Lamium amplexicaule. Photograph by Andreas Rockstein via Flickr.

There are about 50 Lamium species in the mint family. Commonly called dead nettles because their leaves resemble stinging nettles with no ability to sting, this near-evergreen plant (in mild climates) is a low creeper; some cultivars become randomly mounded. As members of the mint family, these plants have square stems, toothy-edged leaves, and a spreading habit (read: they can go crazy). Mainly grown for their two-toned leaves, which can be frosted or marked with splashes, Lamium also sometimes surprise you in late spring or summer with flowers that are relatively small, resembling snapdragons, and in colors ranging from white to pink to purple.

Lamium galeobdolo &#8
Above: Lamium galeobdolo ‘Variegatum’. Photograph courtesy of Auckland Museum via Wikimedia.

Now for the dark side. There is an aggressive variety, Lamium galeobdolon ‘Variegatum’, and if you turn your back it will creep and dominate every unoccupied garden space and be a nightmare to remove. The only way to get rid of it is to diligently dig out its rhizomes. Don’t be fooled by the attractive, silver-streaked leaves and cute yellow flowers. This variety truly lives up to its invasive, mint-family reputation.

A less aggressive alternative is ‘Hermann’s Pride’, a slow-growing, clump-forming ground cover that has jagged, silvery green leaves and bright yellow flowers. Photograph by Andrey Zharkikh via Flickr.
Above: A less aggressive alternative is ‘Hermann’s Pride’, a slow-growing, clump-forming ground cover that has jagged, silvery green leaves and bright yellow flowers. Photograph by Andrey Zharkikh via Flickr.
Lamium maculatum &#8
Above: Lamium maculatum ‘Orchid Frost’. Photograph by Andrey Zharkikh via Flickr.

And then there’s the other types such as L. maculatum ‘Orchid Frost’, which at first boast stunning silver leaves and sweet two-lipped flowers. But then brutish slugs and snails can infiltrate and turn your plant into a mass of riddled holes or worse, a pile of mush. Prepare for the inevitable invasion by applying a pet- and wildlife-safe bait such as Sluggo ($12.16 for 2 1/2 pounds of pellets from Amazon).

Another thing to know is that although most fair best in moist conditions, dead nettles also will grow in dry shade. They do not, however, thrive in poorly drained or compacted soil and many types suffer from wintry wet soils with crown or stem rot. On the other end of the weather spectrum, in hot climates the leaves may get brown and crispy; this is when you can happily cut back the plant to stimulate new fresh growth.

Lamium creates a tapestry, mingling with coral bells, cyclamen, and other ground covers. Photograph by Meet the People, Witness via Flickr.
Above: Lamium creates a tapestry, mingling with coral bells, cyclamen, and other ground covers. Photograph by Meet the People, Witness via Flickr.

Cheat Sheet

  • Dead nettles create a unique tapestry beneath small trees or among plants that can stand up to the competition. Can be invasive in fertile, moist soils.
  • Lamium’s attractive foliage provides interest even when flowers are not in bloom.
  • Relatively fine-textured foliage combines well with plants that have large leaves such as hostas for textural contrast, and with dark-leaved plants such as burgundy-colored coral bells. Other good companions are hydrangeas, hellebores, and ferns.
  • Deer resistant.
Photograph by Free Use Photos via Flickr.
Above: Photograph by Free Use Photos via Flickr.

Keep It Alive

  • Grow the quick-growing ground cover in moist but well-drained soil in partial or full shade. Tip: Varieties with silver leaves often need more light to maintain their color. Don’t plant near smaller plants or they may be overtaken. Dig out rhizomes to keep in bounds.
  • Dead nettles are hardy perennials in USDA growing zones 4 to 10.
  • Prune or shear lamium back after the first bloom to promote compact growth.
  • Slugs, snails, mildew, and leaf spot are common.

If you’re looking for ground cover—to fill a shady spot, to grow under a tree, or to burst into flower in August when everything else is drooping—see our new curated design guide to Ground Covers 101, which covers Dead Nettles 101 as well as our other favorites, including Bugleweed, Coral Bells, Lungwort, and Lilyturf. For more inspiration and tips, see:

Finally, get more ideas on how to successfully plant, grow, and care for nettles with our Nettles: A Field Guide.

Additionally, get more ideas on how to plant, grow, and care for various perennial plants with our Perennials: A Field Guide.

Interested in other edible plants for your garden? Get more ideas on how to plant, grow, and care for various edible plants (including flowers, herbs and vegetables) with our Edible Plants: A Field Guide.

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