One of the many joys of springtime is the welcome return of so many treasured plant allies. Many of these exuberantly abundant herbs are maligned as “weeds”–the mere sight of their presence inspires farmers and homeowners alike to reach for the herbicide. I propose that our culture radically alters our perception of these opportunistic plants. Edible weeds are a huge untapped resource in cities, home gardens and farms. Many urban dwellers lack access to fresh vegetables, yet these free-for-the-picking wild foods and medicines may still be close at hand. Widespread “weedivory” would hopefully inspire homeowners and government officials to stop spraying lawns and public green spaces. One of the easiest-to-identify and tastiest weeds throughout the world is chickweed.
Chickweed (Stellaria media, Caryophyllaceae) is one of my oldest green friends–we became acquainted over two decades ago, and I am still enamored. This weed is beloved among wild foods enthusiasts for its succulent mild flavor, which lends itself nicely to salads, pesto, and as a garnish. It is also a gentle medicinal, safe for babies and elders alike. Chickweed is a low-growing annual, which bears smooth paired leaves (botanically, we call this ‘opposite leaves’) with no teeth. The leaves are generally as big as a pinky nail, but given enough nitrogen and moisture, they can grow much larger. Chickweed hugs the soil, or clambers over rocks or neighboring plants. Its stem is green or reddish, and never woody, as it is an annual. The flowers grow in small clusters and resemble diminutive white stars. They appear to have ten petals, but actually have five petals so deeply cleft that they appear to be ten.
Chickweed also has a unique identification clue: hold a bit of chickweed up to sunlight and you will see a single line of white hairs traveling up the stem. You may need to twirl the stem a bit to see this characteristic. Notice how the hairs travel in a straight line along the stem, in between the leaves. Look closer, and you will see that the line switches positions on the stem at the leaf juncture, giving the hairs a spiraling or candy-cane-like appearance. It sounds more confusing that it really is. Go have a look at a chickweed stem, if possible, and it will become crystal clear. This line of hairs is unusual, but there are a few other plants bearing this trait. It is imperative to combine all of the above characteristics for proper identification.
Chickweed’s close relative, the mouse-ear chickweed (Cerastium fontanum, Caryophyllaceae) is quite similar in appearance, grows in similar habitats, and can be found throughout the US. Mouse-ear chickweed is hairier and coarser than chickweed; it is also edible,although not as tasty. They can readily be told apart by the fact that mouse-ear chickweed has stems that are completely covered in hairs. Chickweed is often found growing with the non-edible Persian speedwell (Veronica persica, Plantaginaceae), and many people confuse the two. Speedwell has blue flowers with four petals, coarsely toothed leaves, and stems that lack the single line of hairs. Persian speedwell is not edible, to my knowledge. Another look-alike is scarlet pimpernel (Anagallis arvensis, Myrsinaceae), which has peach-colored flowers and also lacks the telltale single line of hairs. It is essential to properly identify any plant before you harvest it for food or medicine. If in doubt, do not harvest! Consult your local extension agent, master gardener, or trusted herbalist if you need help with identification.
Chickweed can be found in gardens, old manure and compost piles, on sidewalks, and along trails. It grows in full sun or part shade, depending on the season and bioregion. Chickweed is native to temperate Eurasia and is accustomed to cool moist weather; it shies away from the full summer sun in hotter climates. In milder regions, chickweed can be found all throughout the winter or in very early spring. Here in the southern Appalachians, chickweed has two major appearances: early spring and fall. Take care to only harvest if you are sure nobody has sprayed herbicide. It is also important to avoid gathering plants near roads and railroads, as the surrounding soil is typically contaminated with lead and other toxins. If you live in a place where you aren’t able to access clean wild plants, consider visiting a local organic urban farm or community garden, where you are likely to find an abundance of chickweed, along with gardeners who are happy to share the bounty.
I harvest chickweed with scissors, cutting back the top few tender inches, which will generally include some leaves, flowers, flower buds and stem, all of which are edible and tasty. After receiving a “haircut”, the plant will grow tender new shoots, making it possible to repeatedly harvest until it gets too leggy and chewy. Try not to cut below the top few inches, as these lower portions are quite fibrous–eating them will force your jaws into working overtime and leave you feeling like a cow. Look for densely growing patches of chickweed; the neighboring stems hold each other up, making the “haircut” harvesting method much easier and quicker than harvesting lone plants, which have a more splayed, low-growing habit.
Once in the kitchen, the greens can be rinsed and chopped coarsely — stems, leaves, and flowers alike. Chickweed is tasty enough to use as a salad base, or it can be added to lettuce with other wild greens, such as violet (Viola spp.) and dandelion (Taraxacum officinale, Asteraceae). I use the chopped greens in lieu of lettuce on sandwiches and wraps. One of my all-time favorite ways to enjoy its tender tasty leaves is in pesto. Simply substitute chickweed for basil in your favorite pesto recipe. We use this wild pesto to dress up pizza and pasta; additionally, we enjoy it as a dip for raw veggies and crackers. I make a big batch and freeze the excess in ice cube trays to enjoy it year-round. Because chickweed’s flavor is so mild, it makes an excellent base for more pungent or bitter greens, such as garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata, Brassicaceae) and dandelion greens. You can steam or sauté chickweed, but I generally enjoy it raw as it cooks down substantially.
Chickweed is easy to digest and high in vitamins and minerals, and thus is traditionally prepared as a first food after a long illness or stomach flu. It also has a reputation as a diet herb, and many people swear by it as an ally in weight loss. It is typically eaten or prepared as a tea for this purpose, although some people have reported good results with the tincture. To my knowledge, no studies have been performed on chickweed for this use. It is a diuretic, and perhaps it works by optimizing cellular metabolism. In any case, the fiber is a welcome addition to most Americans’ diet. Like all leafy greens, chickweed bulks up a meal, while adding very little calories. According to John Kallas of the Institute for the Study of Wild Plants, chickweed is higher in iron and zinc than any of the commonly cultivated greens, such as spinach, collards and kale.
Medicinally, chickweed is cooling, soothing and anti-inflammatory. It is used topically in salves, herbal oils, poultices and compresses. Internally, it can be taken as a tea or in capsules. Some of chickweed’s nutritive qualities are wasted in tincture, as the alcohol doesn’t effectively extract minerals or mucilage; for this reason I generally don’t recommend chickweed tincture. It is considered a blood cleanser and a tonic, strengthening herb, especially after a long convalescence. The high levels of iron in chickweed make it a powerful ally in iron-deficiency anemia; it can be ingested liberally as a food or in tea to help build blood. Chickweed tea is often recommended as a daily tonic, along with red clover (Trifolium pratense, Fabaceae) and burdock (Arctium lappa and A. minus, Asteraceae), for acne, psoriasis, and eczema. With its soothing, cooling nature, it is a common ingredient in herbal heartburn remedies, and equally beneficial for sore throats. Topically, chickweed is applied as a poultice or compress for conjunctivitis, rashes, chicken pox, poison ivy, contact dermatitis, and eczema.
If you have chickweed growing in your garden, consider letting it sprawl between planted crops as a living edible mulch, or groundcover. I encourage its growth between rows of greens, tomatoes or peppers. Using this method, chickweed yields an edible and medicinal harvest in the early spring. As the season progresses, the chickweed becomes less productive and the vegetable crops fill out and are harvested.
This post is an excerpt from Juliet Blankespoor’s forthcoming book – Cultivating Medicinal Herbs – A guidebook to growing healing plants in the home garden, slated to release this summer. This innovative and vibrant reference is more than a guide to growing herbs — it also covers medicine making, wild foods, edible flowers, and detailed medicinal uses. With over 350 full-color pages, brimming with scrumptious recipes and extensive accounts on propagation, cultivation, and harvesting, it is sure to inspire the seasoned gardener and novice alike. This extensive resource is the companion guide to her upcoming distance-learning course on Cultivating Medicinal Herbs, offered through the Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine. To receive updates on the release of the book and course, sign up for her newsletter on www.chestnutherbs.com