A Nutritional Powerhouse Just Waiting for Appreciation
One of the best all around “weeds” you can eat is the delicate, but prolific chickweed. This annual is very quick to announce the arrival of spring with quick growth and tiny white blooms. It is mat-like in its growth habit and it gets 6-8 inches high by about 16 inches around. It is an airy-looking plant with long, thin wisp-like stems and small leaves. There is a fine line of “hairs” along the stem that may switch sides as they reach leaf pairs.
Right now in our area the plant is a medium green color and at this point is almost beginning to yellow a bit as temps in the 80′s have been frequent lately. It seems to enjoy partial shade. The leaves are small ovals with pointed ends. The edges of the leaves are smooth rather than toothed. They appear in pairs on opposites sides of the stem. New leaves will have no leaf stems visible, though older, larger ones may.
Chickweed often has a huge growth spurt in early spring and then dies back some for the hottest months. It frequently has another good run when temps begin to drop off in the fall. Some form of this plant grows nearly everywhere and can be found (if you know what to look for) at almost all times of the year.
When chickweed’s stem is broken, there is NO milky sap- this characteristic helps to differentiate it from other similar plants. Also, there is a slightly stretchy center core inside the stem when you begin to pick it. It is possible to crease the stem with your nail enough to separate the outside tube while leaving the core intact. That core will usually withstand a slight amount of pulling before breaking.
The flowers are only 1/8 – 1/4 inch wide and often open only while the sun shines on them. At night, the leaves fold over the flowers and tender buds. Technically, they have 5 petals, but they are so deeply notched that they look more like 10 or even like “fringe.” Another noteworthy characteristic is that forming buds are often downward-facing, especially on the Star Chickweed that is most common here. The buds are also oval shaped and “hairy.”
Chickweed gets is name from the fact that chickens are said to love it. I’ve never seen our “free range” birds eat it, but it may be they just eat from patches I don’t know about. The one area I know about that is completely covered with this plant is not part of their usual rounds.
Uses for Chickweed
One of our favorite “wild food” meals is Chickweed, Violet, & Dandelion Salad. All three “weeds” are at their peak at about the same time and we have more than we could ever eat. Chickweed is one of few plants that have leaves, flowers, and stems that all taste good- no need to strip the stems off. They’re so delicate that you can grab handfuls and use all the aerial parts, though new growth is always most tender.
Chickweed can be eaten raw (as in a salad). It has a taste reminiscent of corn silk. It is also good lightly cooked like spinach, which it will taste like also. Much like spinach, it will shrink quite a bit in cooking. If adding to soups for extra nutrition, do so shortly before serving to avoid overcooking.
Chickweed is one of the most nutrient-dense wild edibles you can find. It is full of vitamins A, B complex, C, and D, as well as a flavonoid called rutin. It also contains the minerals calcium, copper, iron, manganese, phosphorus, silica, sodium, and zinc.
Chickweed is credited with many healing properties in addition to nutritional ones. For many years, it has been used as a warm poultice for all kinds of skin irritations, itching, swelling, diaper rash, and infections. The water chickweed is cooked in is used for washing wounds also. It is considered useful whether fresh, dried, powdered, or mixed as a salve.
Many think if it is eaten is will help with cold symptoms, indigestion, rheumatoid arthritis, and “blood poisoning.” A strong tea is made for constipation to be drunk repeatedly until the problem is resolved. It is used for post-partum recovery and other “female complaints,” kidney problems, as well as a circulatory “tonic.” It has shown promise recently as an antihistamine.
Those allergic to daisies may want to avoid chickweed to prevent contact dermatitis. As always, pregnant or nursing women and children should use caution and consider not taking it internally.
Here is a video that “Green Deane” made to help you learn to identify and use this marvelous plant. If you ever get a chance to attend one of his walking identification tours, I highly recommend them!