Chickweed: A Weed or a Delicious Salad Crop?
Chickweed (Stellaria media) is a native of Europe and Asia, presently naturalised on all continents. It is a small plant with weak trailing stems and oval leaves. It’s tiny white flowers with five deeply cleft petals resemble stars and were clearly as inspiration for its Latin name, derived from the word stella – a ‘star’. Chickweed is ubiquitous and can grow in full sun in meadows and fields, as well as in partial shade under trees on edges of woods.
Chickweed is known to many gardeners as an extremely prolific weed and one of the first plants to sprout on freshly dug soil. In areas with mild winters, such as much of the UK, it grows, flowers and sets seed almost all year round. Even a small cutting can regrow if given contact with soil. Individual plants tend to be short-lived – they flower within 4-5 weeks of germination and produce mature seeds within 5-7 weeks. During its life time each plant grows thousands of seeds that quickly germinate and give birth to new plants. Seedlings sprout particularly actively in spring and autumn, but are plentiful through much of the year.
Chickweed is hardy and has been known to survive temperatures as low as -10C. It can be killed only by very hard frost and snow, but quickly starts growing again as soon as they are gone. In a garden where chickweed has taken hold, the only radical and ecologically responsible way to suppress it, is what is suggested by its name – it is loved by chickens and is very good for their health. They can quickly dispose of a large quantity of it. Of course once they have eaten stellaria, they will turn to other plants, but let’s say this is a separate problem.
For a gardener without chickens, who constantly has to weed out stellaria, it may be a consolation to know that it is good not just for wild and domestic animals, but for us as well. One could perhaps consider eating one’s way out of the worst of the problem. Chickweed is believed to be rich in vitamins, particularly vitamin C, and iron. It has an important role in traditional medicine of many nations. Fresh juice and paste have been used to stop bleeding and to heal wounds and burns, due to the antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties of chickweed. Its medicinal potential is recognised by scientific medicine as well. According to a recent review of scientific literature on stellaria, ‘In traditional medicine, Stellaria media has been used in treatment of obesity, diabetes, dermal infections, inflammation, gastric ulcers and stomach cramps … Crude extracts and isolated pure compounds from Stellaria media displayed pronounced pharmacological activities justifying the different ethnopharmacological and ethnobotanical applications of Stellaria media.’ According to the same source, ‘These bioactive metabolites displayed diverse pharmacological activities such as anti-obesity, antifungal, antibacterial, antioxidant, anti-proliferative, anti-inflammatory, analgesic, antidiabetic and anxiolytic activities’ (Oluwole Solomon Oladejia and Abel Kolawole Oyebamijibc, ‘Stellaria media (L.) Vill. –A plant with immense therapeutic potential: phytochemistry and pharmacology’, Heliyon 6 (2020)).
Chickweed is one of my favourite wild plants to use fresh in salads. It is reliably available outside, as long as there is no snow, but it can also be grown indoors, as an addition to a windowsill salad garden. All one needs to do is to bring a few stems with roots from the garden and, for best results, plant them in soil rich in organic matter. They will quickly start to grow in a warm room, and in 2-3 weeks cover the available space. Chickweed does not mind low light levels in winter. It needs to be watered frequently, and once cut, will grow back.
This humble plant deserves our attention. In fact just looking at it can teach a careful observer something useful. In addition to its ‘immense therapeutic potential’, it is also nature’s own barometer. If its flowers have not opened by 9am, it is sure to rain that day. If they opened and did not close by 4pm, there will be no rain in the evening or night, even if the sky is full of dark clouds.
1. Young chickweed stems are soft and juicy, and have a fresh pleasant taste. Put washed stems on sandwiches in the same way as watercress.
2. To make a salad, wash 50-100g of chickweed, chop, add a small amount of chopped spring onions and dill, and dress with mayonnaise or vegetable oil.
3. To make a paste to put on sandwiches and canapes, use the following ingredients: half a 200ml glass of chickweed, 1 hard-boiled egg, 50g butter, half a teaspoon of English mustard, and salt to taste. Mix the egg yolk with mustard and butter. Finely chop chickweed and egg white, and mix with the egg yolk paste.
Image credits: flowering chickweed by Simon