Herb to Know: Chickweed

| June/July 1998

  • Photograph by J. G. Strauch, Jr.

• Stellaria media
• (Stuh-LARE-ee-uh MEE-dee-uh)
• Family Caryophyllaceae
• Annual herb

Widely known and despised as a weed, chickweed (Stellaria media) is also a nourishing salad green or potherb that’s available almost year-round in much of the country. It’s called chickweed because chickens love to eat the leaves and seeds, but it might just as well have been called rabbit­weed or goldfinchweed or quailweed—a long list of animals find it tasty. The generic name Stellaria comes from the Latin word stella, “star”, from the shape of the flowers; media is Latin for “medium”, referring to the size of the plant.

The genus Stellaria comprises about 120 species of annual and perennial herbs found throughout the world. S. media, probably native to Eurasia and now found wherever Europeans have traveled, is a low-growing annual (or sometimes a short-lived perennial) that may produce as many as five generations in a single growing season.

Chickweed’s weak, brittle, sprawling, pale green stems up to 2 feet long are much branched and slightly swollen at the nodes. A line of tiny hairs runs up one side of each stem, shifting to a different side at each node. Pairs of small oval leaves with sharply pointed tips emerge at each node; the lower ones have long stalks.

Minute, starry white flowers, solitary or in small clusters at ends of branches and stems, bloom from February to December. (A folk belief holds that if the flowers are open, it won’t rain for at least four hours.) Each flower has five petals, which are so deeply cleft there appear to be ten, and five sepals, which are longer than the petals. Flowers may have three, five, or ten stamens. They are mainly self-pollinated.

The reddish brown kidney-shaped seeds may be dispersed by the wind or by animals that eat them; passage through an animal’s digestive tract often doesn’t hurt their viability. Plants also spread by rooting where nodes touch the ground.

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