Now that cool weather is upon us common chickweed (Stellaria media) is everywhere. It’s that light green carpet-like weed with the tiny white flowers taking over flowerbeds and gardens right now. In fact, recent mild weather probably has facilitated exponential new invaders to any bare soil in sunny locations on your property. Each plant can produce thousands of seeds.
Don’t despair. It’s another delicious mild green, raw or cooked. Even when plants are blooming their flavor has no bitterness, which is unusual. If free-range chickens could talk they’d tell you. That’s how chickweed got its name. It can constitute a good portion of their diet.
When eaten in a salad it has spinach-like texture, but leaves are much smaller. Mild flavor and tenderness are its most desirable traits. You’d be surprised how much you can eat until you cook some. Leaves are mostly water so it shrinks down to a fraction of its fresh volume when boiled or steamed. Don’t overcook it unless you like mush.
Chickweed is another of a long list of old-world plants introduced centuries ago. It belongs to a group of plants we call winter annuals. They begin to grow in the fall and more or less disappear when the weather warms in early summer. Common chickweed is not tolerant to drought and will disappear quickly on warm dry soil.
Leaves emerge from the stem in groups of two. Some have little stem-like structures called petioles attached to leaf blades and others do not. Foliage is smooth and delicate and the plants run along the ground, rooting freely.
Chickweed is nearly always flowering, except in the coldest weather. It has numerous tiny white flowers about a quarter inch in diameter. They have five deeply notched petals that look like ten. Flowers close at night and open in the morning. They also close when rain is imminent. At night, chickweed folds its leaves over the growing tip. This helps protect it from freezing. Chickweed has a strong will to live and there are reasons to let it grow.
Common chickweed is very healthy for you in moderate quantities. Foliage accumulates oxalates, which could be a problem for kidney stone formers though. However, leaves and stems contain high levels of saponins, which lower blood cholesterol levels. Muscilage is a gelatinous soluble fiber found in chickweed that also lowers serum cholesterol. Both have laxative properties and interfere with the body’s absorption of fat. Several weight-loss and colon cleansing products contain chickweed, which is also high in vitamin C.
On the negative side, common chickweed is a host to several damaging crop virus diseases. Some can be carried in chickweed seeds, which grow into infected plants. The virus can persist in seeds for several months. Numerous nematode species also infest common chickweed. Pre-emergent and post-emergent chemicals are available, but tillage usually controls this plant for homeowners.
Mouse-ear chickweed (Cerastium vulgatum) is a major lawn weed. More compact but also edible, it is better cooked as leaf texture is fuzzy. Plants can be controlled with most common broadleaf weed-killers.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.