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.
To humans, chickweed tops taste slightly of raw corn but otherwise have hardly any taste. As a salad ingredient, they add a delicate texture and temper the bite of more assertive greens such as dandelion and mustard. To serve as a potherb, cook chickweed only a few seconds to preserve its structure and nutritive value. Chickweed’s high vitamin and mineral content supports its former use as a scurvy (vitamin C deficiency) preventive.
Chickweed, which also contains mucilage and saponins, was believed to have numerous medicinal uses. Teas made from the tops have been taken to relieve constipation, rheumatism and gout, blood disorders, and respiratory ailments including tuberculosis. The tea also has been diet fare: drinking it was thought to cause weight loss by promoting urination. In addition, the fresh tops have been made into poultices to alleviate itching and inflammation of eyes, skin, and hemorrhoids.
Science has confirmed that chickweed inhibits the growth of the bacterium that causes tuberculosis but has not supported any of its other folk uses.
Chickweed is easily grown from seed, but it’s probably already growing in your yard. To encourage it, give it good garden soil and water it regularly. It thrives in sun or shade. To harvest it, snip the tops with scissors or save the plants you pull while weeding.
• Abundant Life Seed Foundation, PO Box 772, Port Townsend, WA 98368. (360) 385-5660. Catalog $2.
• Horizon Herbs, PO Box 69, Williams, OR 97544-0069. (541) 846-6704. Catalog free. Seeds.
• Richters, Goodwood, ON, Canada L0C 1A0. (905) 640-6677. Catalog free. Seeds and dried herb.
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