Once you know chickweed you will see that it is omnipresent. Just yesterday we found it growing around downtown Olympia trees – those compact patches of dirt in the midst of a sea of concrete. Later we found scraggily plants in our lawn, which looked entirely different than the lush mats growing in our neighbor’s garden. Chickweed is a welcomed weed at our house – we celebrate its pioneering spirit.
Other names: Stellaria media. Stellaria means “star” and media means “in the midst of.” Also called white bird’s eye, starweed, scarwort.
Identifying chickweed: There is something magical about chickweed if you look close. My daughter is enthralled with the tiny star-like flowers. They have 5 petals, but appear to have 10 because each petal is shaped like rabbit ears. The whole plant will sprawl on flat ground or climb on other plants and grows up to 15 inches tall. Bright green leaves grow in opposite pairs, and change position at each node, which creates a cross-shaped pattern if you look straight down the stem. A single line of hair runs down the length of the stem, changing its position where leaves emerge. Seedpods are covered in tiny hairs and droop down. Chickweed lives about 6 weeks. It will quickly reseed and create a new crop if the conditions are right.
Where it grows: Chickweed is a common weed – an opportunist that will flourish in any wet place it can take root, including carefully managed gardens and randomly available city dirt patches. It thrives in moist rich soil and will take over whole garden beds in early spring. As the sun gets brighter and the days warmer, it dies back in open areas, but continues to thrive in shady moist corners. Chickweed is originally from Europe but it has spread in cool climates across the globe.
When and How to Harvest
Cool spring weather is the ideal climate for chickweed. It grows rapidly through March and April. Use scissors to harvest the tender new growth or just trim the top couple of inches off more developed plants. Rinse if necessary. Chickweed will last in the refrigerator for several days if you wrap it in a damp paper towel or place it in a plastic bag. If chickweed has gone to seed, it tends to have a stringy tough texture and is too old to be edible. When the days are shorter and the nights cool again in autumn, chickweed may have a lush second coming.
Young chickweed has a pleasant, mild flavor. It is delicious as a base green or as an addition to salads. It can also be blended raw into smoothies, pesto, and sauces. Add finely chopped chickweed to eggs, quiche, pasta sauce and lasagna to give them an extra nutrient boost and a splash of bright color. I do not tend to sauté, steam, or boil chickweed straight since it reduces in size so much, but some people like to do this. Herbalist Janice Schofield likes to add dried chickweed to soup, bread, and sauces as a nutritious herb.
Chickweed is a powerhouse of nutrients. Spinach is the most mineral rich green in grocery stores but chickweed boasts 12 times more calcium, 5 times more magnesium, 83 times more iron, and 6 times more vitamin C! It is also high in zinc, which helps to build immune health. No wonder that chickens and other green foraging animals love it (hence, “chick weed”).
Chickweed has soothing, cooling, hydrating, and healing properties. It is used topically as a fresh plant poultice, or infused in olive oil for skin inflammation, wounds, boils, rashes, acne, and to draw out infections. My herbalist friend Calista Warden makes an amazing “Carpenter’s Cream” from chickweed oil that originally turned me on to the plant. I have never seen anything be so effective at drawing splinters out of hard working hands and soothing dry cracked skin.
To make the oil: harvest fresh chickweed, let it wilt in a basket for a day so it is at least half dried, chop it fine with scissors then place it in a double boiler. Cover the herb with extra virgin olive oil and heat on very low. Turn on and off for several days – allowing any water in the plant to evaporate off and the medicine to infuse into the oil. Do not let the oil boil. Strain with muslin cloth, then store in a glass jar in a cool dark place. The oil will last about a year and can be used straight or added to creams or salves. My friend Jody Berry of Wild Carrot Herbals adds chickweed oil to her Gaia Goo Healing Salve and Children’s Herbal Chest Rub. Read her sweet post on DIY chickweed salve.
Chickweed contains steroidal saponins – compounds that foam when water is present. Saponins are known to increase the permeability of many membranes in the body through partially dissolving them. This helps us understand chickweeds traditional uses in dissolving congested tissue including cysts, tumors, swollen glands, and thickened mucus membranes. Chickweed also increases our ability to absorb nutrients across our intestines. This action paired with large amounts of fiber and minerals makes chickweed an excellent food for supporting intestinal health.
Chickweed is mildly diuretic and can be supportive during bladder infections. It cools and sooths hot inflamed conditions. Also consider using it as a tea or tincture during infections, dry coughs, asthma, allergies and arthritis.
Many herbal books mention that chickweed is good for weight loss. It is very low in calories and high in nutrients like other nutritious wild greens including nettle and dandelion. It may be that chickweed helps with weight loss in some other way, but exactly how this works is still a mystery to me. I welcome any testimonials from you, dear reader!
Dosage: eat 1-2 handfuls of chickweed (tender tops including leaf, flower and stem) per day.
For tea, gather above ground parts dry in baskets or paper bags in a warm place with good ventilation. Once completely dry, store in a bag or jar in a cool dark place. This will last about a year. Use 1 heaping tablespoon per cup of hot water and steep 10-15 minutes. Drink 2-3 cups per day. Chickweed is generally taken for several weeks to several months for therapeutic effects.