Forage Friday: Chickweed

As we settle into the new year, it may seem that there is nothing left to forage out in our bleak, brown, wintery landscapes. But there is a wonderful little plant out there who will remain vigilant to see you through the cold months. You may need to peek under fallen leaves or even push back the snow to find her. Or check in your potted plants, even ones that live inside if any of their dirt originated from your garden.

Stellaria media, or common chickweed. It is said that there is no where on earth that it doesn’t grow, although it does prefer the cooler climates and in my part of the US, my patches of chickweed die back in the hottest parts of summer. But come fall straight through to late spring, it remains around, literally everywhere.

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Young chickweed coming up in a potted plant as it goes dormant for the winter

Chickweed is pretty easy to identify, and is a good starter plant for foraging, especially since it is so prolific everywhere.

It is a low-growing, spreading “weed” with succulent-like leaves, and of course, the little, white “star” flowers which are part of its namesake.

The key feature to discerning the many types of edible chickweed, vs the poisonous scarlet pimpernel (Anagallis arvensis), especially when there are no flowers, is the tiny hairs that are present on chickweed. Common chickweed (Stellaria media), specifically, has a line of tiny hairs which runs along the stem. The line changes position at each node, but is very much a distinguishable line of tiny hairs. Scarlet pimpernel doesn’t have this line of hairs. It is additionally quite bitter, vs the pleasantly fresh and sweet taste of chickweed. Bitterness is usually an indication that you shouldn’t eat it. There are exceptions, of course (dandelion, bitter dock, etc.) but in this case, if the chickweed is bitter, it’s not chickweed!
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Scarlet pimpernel (Anagallis arvensis), typically reddish flowers, but can be blue or white.
There is another species, Cerastium vulgatum, or mouse-eared chickweed which is close to stellaria, but has hairs all over the plant, which lends to it’s name, I suppose. In the picture below you can see both plants growing in the same patch.
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Stellaria (left), Cerastium (right)

The mouse ear chickweed on the right has a thicker leaf and is fuzzy all over, vs the common chickweed on the left, which has thinner, smooth leaves. And in the picture below, you can really see the overall fuzziness of the mouse-ear, vs the common chickweed, even extending onto the stems.

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mouse ear chickweed amongst a common chickweed patch
 

Mouse ear chickweed is also edible, and I think it does tend to be a bit more substantial in cooked food especially, but mouse eared chickweed does not hold all the same medicinal qualities that common chickweed does.

 

Chickweed uses

Eat it!

First and foremost, at least in my house, chickweed is food! My daughter loves to snack on the leaves and stems while hanging out in the garden. I harvest bunches of the above-ground parts to put raw on sandwiches or in salads, or cook in with other greens. The bunny loves it. The chickens love it (chickweed). I’m pretty sure I’ve even seen the dog graze around it a bit.

Chickweed is high in all sorts of essential vitamins and minerals: vitamin C, Beta-carotene, B vitamins 1, 2, and 3, GLA (omega-6 fatty acid), calcium, copper, magnesium, potassium, iron, manganese, and zinc. It’s also high in fiber, and contains something called saponins. Saponins are present in many plants and are purported to not only make it easier for our bodies to take in all those wonderful nutrients and minerals, but may even help with weight loss as saponins (think soap) literally dissolve fat! 

Chickweed vinegar is tasty, and vinegar is especially good at drawing out the minerals in a plant, so would make a nutritious, delicious addition to a salad dressing.

Bottom line, chickweed is delicious though. It tastes very fresh, a bit like peas, and does add a pleasant crunch to a sandwich (think sprouts) or a fresh pop to a salad. I like to add it to my pots of other cooked greens and I find it adds a little sweetness which helps mellow out the bitter greens. I do add it near the end of the cooking time though, as chickweed is very delicate and doesn’t need much time to break down. You could even add it to a green smoothie if that’s your thing, or to an herbal pesto, but be sure to cut up the stems well as they will wrap around and bind up the spinning parts of a blender.

Harvesting small amounts frequently is the way to go. Chickweed doesn’t keep well in the fridge (let nature store it for you!), and the older it gets, the tougher it gets. Regular trims (vs pulling out the whole plant) encourage lots of new growth and keep the plants tender and sweet.

External Use

Chickweed is cooling, astringent, and slightly demulcent, so think rashes, scrapes, irritations. It is a wonderful ingredient to add to soothing salves or creams. It’s gentle and I’ve heard numerous accounts of high success against diaper rash. I have personally used it to make a salve for a friend. He had some cancerous skin removed which left him with horribly inflamed and irritated skin. I infused some fresh chickweed, plantain, and comfrey in oil, added rose water, and brought it all together with some shea butter. The resulting salve was quickly absorbed into his skin (not the kind of guy who uses lotion, ever!) and gave him almost immediate relief from the chafing and inflammation.

We’ve also used the fresh plant, crushed to release it’s juices, and applied directly to childhood scrapes, mild cuts, and kitchen scalds/burns with wonderfully soothing results. Along with soothing and cooling, chickweed may have some anti-infective properties which lend to it being recommended for eye infections such as conjunctivitis (pink eye).

Chickweed is also wonderful for dissolving cysts, and is gentle enough to use anywhere…even on a Bartholin cyst (personal experience)! Chickweed helps to break down and dissolve the cyst without irritating or damaging the surrounding skin and tissue. Depending on the size of the cyst, it can be a long treatment, but regular application does work and results can be seen, as in reduction in size, fairly quickly.

It’s gentleness is also welcome to hemorrhoid sufferers. A short sitz-bath in a strong (cooled off) chickweed tea provides almost instant relief to the itching and burning, while helping to quell the inflammation and swelling.

My favorite thing about chickweed is although it is nice to have a soothing salve or cream on hand, it doesn’t have to be that complicated. Chickweed can be plucked straight from the garden, crushed, and applied to whatever ails you without any additional processing needed.

Internal Use

Chickweed can be made easily into a mild-tasting tea, a refreshing infusion, a decoction, tincture, or delicious vinegar. Dried chickweed does lose a lot of it’s medicinal qualities and while it is available commercially, why buy something you can go outside and pick to your heart’s content which is more potent and better for you?!

Tea’s and decoctions were traditionally used as a restorative tonic, especially after sickness. Chickweed’s cooling nature has also been used to help reduce a fever. While chickweed doesn’t have much in the way of antibiotic properties, it is mildly diuretic and can be used to help move fluid through and soothe infected bladders and urinary tracts.

I keep chickweed tincture on hand for my recurrent internal cysts (although they haven’t been as recurrent since I adjusted my diet to something more (w)holistic and incorporated herbal infusions into my daily intake). When a cyst pops up (usually ovarian, sometimes on the liver), or even if I just get that nagging sensation that there might be one in there, I start taking a dropperful of tincture in some water daily until I simply don’t feel it anymore. The last time I had a Bartholin cyst, I was on vacation in the middle of summer and couldn’t find any fresh plant to apply, so I bought some tincture at a local shop, and within 3 days, it was gone.

A cup of chickweed infusion a day may help you lose weight. (Taking a good look at activity levels and food intake will do much more, and striving for actual health over some magic number does most.) As I mentioned before, the saponins in the plant dissolve fat cells. That also means they can break down and release the toxins, harmful bacteria, and other harmful substances that may be lingering in and around those fat cells, and then the diuretic properties of chickweed help to flush it all out of your system through your urine. Now I don’t believe in “detoxing” or “dieting” in the way that is splashed all over every magazine and “news” website these days, but I do believe in using natural, whole methods to reach optimal health and wellness. But, if as a bonus side effect, chickweed dissolves some unneeded fat cells and rids my body of some of the inevitable bad stuff that is floating around in there, well that’s ok by me!

 

So I challenge you to go find some chickweed today! Sweep away the leave, push aside the snow, check all your potted plants, I promise it’s there somewhere! And incorporate this wonderfully, gentle, soothing, delicious, nutritious plant into your life.

 

 

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