Early in my study of herbal medicine, I felt compelled to try every healing plant I could get my hands on. Over the years, I have recognized that the cultivated and wild plants found in my garden, along the roads I walk every day, and in the nearby forests comprise about 75% of my homestead apothecary. Though I am not a big forager of wild foods, I look at all the plants that show up in my life as gifts.
In early spring, as the snow melts, one of the first glimpses of green I see in my garden is a carpet of chickweed sprawled across several of my cultivated beds. In my early years of gardening, I would assign the label of weed to it and promptly rip it out of a bed. But now I recognize it as a nutrient-dense early spring green that offers multiple benefits.
Native to Europe and Asia, chickweed (Stellaria media) has naturalized throughout North America and traveled along with early Europeans as they colonized other lands in the world, introducing domesticated animals. Chickweed seeds are quite hardy and pass through many animals’ digestive systems, and are delivered back to the land intact and encased in a bed of natural fertilizer. The name chickweed, also called chickenwort, highlights chickens’ enthusiastic response when given a pile of chickweed trimmings at feeding time.
Chickweed in the Garden
Low-growing and shallow-rooted, chickweed forms a green groundcover in late winter and early spring. It is rooted by one small taproot but spreads its stems out to create its mat-like appearance. It prefers shady, moist conditions and easily makes itself at home in cultivated garden soil, benefitting from the nutrients and loose soil. It’s considered an annual but because of its prolific seed production (2500 seeds from one plant), it acts like a perennial, consistently showing up each year in the same place as last year. In warmer climates, it will become evergreen and survive through most of the year.
The ½ inch leaves are pale green, oval, succulent, and organized in an opposite pattern along the stem. A key identifying characteristic is a line of fine hair that runs along the stem but with a twist: the hair changes sides each time it encounters a leaf junction. Don’t ask me why…despite our scientific curiosity, nature still holds many mysteries.
The tiny delicate white flowers have five petals that are deeply divided, fooling casual observers into the notion there are ten petals. The star-like (thus the genus name) flowers open to the sun but remain closed on overcast or rainy days. Chickweed also practices what Linneaus called the “Sleep of Night” in which leaves close over new shoots, protecting the buds from the unpredictable spring weather.
Summer heat sends the plant into a type of dormancy or death. Once the cool weather and rain return in the autumn, it often comes back to life. Patches of spring-grown plants will survive under the shade of larger-leaved plants like squash during the hot months.
Leaving chickweed in the garden helps to protect the soil, attracts beneficial pollinators, and if allowed to die in the bed, the leaves will help fertilize the soil. Leaving the roots in place after the annual plants have died supports the soil’s condition by feeding microorganisms and keeping space open for air and water to enter the soil.
Chickweed in the Kitchen
Like other wild greens, chickweed is highly nutritious: it’s loaded with calcium, potassium, magnesium, iron, and Vitamin C. The leaves have a mild and refreshing taste similar to spinach and can be added to salads and used as lettuce on sandwiches. It can be steamed briefly for 3-5 minutes and tossed into pasta or eaten alone with a splash of lemon and your seasoning of choice. Other culinary suggestions include steeping in vinegar for a salad dressing, adding to a quiche or soup, or making a chickweed pesto that can be frozen for future use. (See my primer on pesto.)
Before harvesting, be sure to identify and remove any other weeds that grow within the patch that are not edible. To harvest and keep the patch intact, simply take scissors and trim off the top inch or two, preferably before the flowers have bloomed.
Chickweed in the Apothecary
Traditionally, chickweed was used to help people recover from illness. A classic example of food as medicine, the leaves are added to broth or steeped as a tea used to soothe inflammation and reduce fever. Chickweed is considered cooling and moistening and used for hot, dry, and irritated conditions. Topically, it can be applied as a poultice to skin blemishes, itching insect bites, eczema, burns, and cuts. A fresh poultice can be applied to closed eyes to soothe dryness or irritation and the pain of pink eye or an inflamed sty.
A chickweed salve is easy to make by infusing fresh leaves into a carrier oil and then adding beeswax to make a soft salve. The plant contains a lot of moisture so it’s best to allow the leaves to wilt for 24-36 hours.
That chickweed vinegar you made for your salad? It can be applied to sunburn for some immediate relief.
Chickweed can be drunk as tea or taken as an oxymel (see how to make an oxymel). Both are especially useful for dry, hacking coughs, helping to loosen up congestion and moisten the lung tissues.
It helps increase the absorption of nutrients in the digestive tract while also helping with eliminating toxins. There are several studies that report that chickweed offers an anti-obesity action because of its ability to inhibit the intestinal absorption of fats and carbohydrates. Some herbalists recommend chickweed to help with weight loss.
People who regularly consume fresh chickweed have reported a reduction in the pain and inflammation associated with rheumatism and the application of chickweed salve may reduce arthritic pain. Chickweed is safe for regular use but overuse (internally) can have both laxative and diuretic effects and cause vomiting.
From a Permaculture Perspective
As a wild edible and medicinal plant, chickweed offers much to those practicing permaculture principles in their gardens. It’s an efficient self-sower that requires no maintenance, saving the grower time and energy. It has multiple functions: as a soil protector & fertilizer, provides nectar and food for wildlife, can be fed to chickens and rabbits, and can be harvested for months as a nutritious edible, and a potent medicinal. The best part is it’s free, a gift from nature.