By Eileen Schaeffer
It is hard to find green in the frosty winter months- but maybe you just aren’t looking hard enough! When everything else in the garden seems buried in leaf flitter and icy bits of grass, it is time to start scouting for Chickweed (Stellaria media). Chickweed is a “weed” in the sense that it takes no effort to grow. But, of all the uninvited plant visitors in your yarden, you are lucky to be graced by this useful plant’s presence.
Chickweed is native to northern Europe, but now you can find it wherever soil has been disturbed. It is an indicator of fertile, mineral-rich soil and makes nitrogen available for your other yarden plants. It is an annual, gently crawling herb; it only appears perennial because the seeds so readily self-sow. Once you identify Chickweed, it is impossible to mistake. This is a great plant to look for with young ones. No other plant (in our area, at least) has a singular mohawk-style line of white hairs running vertical down its juicy stem.
Chickweed flowers are five-petaled, but they are so deeply cut it looks like ten. The leaves are deltoid-shaped and come off in pairs from the sprawling stems. Think of chickweed as a cool-weather ground cover to keep other weeds at bay while helping to retain moisture in the soil. Chickweed has very shallow roots so it couldn’t be easier to pull up and lay down in place (this form of green mulching is called “chop and drop”) to smother other more noxious weeds. I haven’t noticed chickweed inhibiting the growth of any of my garden veggies – in fact, I feel like it boosts their quality.
Save some of this green mulch for your chickens (Gallus gallus domesticus) and your family. No other green treat excites such a joyful frenzy from our pack of feathered friends. If you are a die-hard native planter, then eating chickweed is a great way to live into your philosophy while also utilizing a free and nutrient-dense food source. Chickweed is not only packed with nutrients, it also enhances your body’s ability to absorb these nutrients and reap their prosperous benefits. This is due to steroidal saponins, which act like a soap to emulsify food in your belly and increase absorption, especially minerals, from your gut mucosa. This ability to emulsify also works in breaking down and neutralizing toxins, weakening bacterial cell walls, and wiping away the thick gunk that tends to form in our lungs- especially during the winter months; how fortunate that we are provided a free food source so aptly matched to the season of cold and flu!
This cooling herb is gentle enough for the very young and very old. Simply trim back the top few inches of the herb, preferably before it flowers, chop it up, and mix it into your salad, soups, eggs, etc. I especially love making a pesto with chickweed. It is very mild, and even a bit salty! This slightly “salty” taste indicates its inordinately rich mineral content- iron, magnesium, zinc, calcium, phosphorus, iron, and aluminum among others. This seemingly contradictory nature of chickweed is humbling to us humans who crave definition: how can such a mild and soothing herb pack such a mineral-rich punch? Sometimes it is best to just observe and enjoy the complexity of natural design. Chickweed’s cooling nature not only soothes your gut and lungs, it makes an excellent external poultice for red, hot, itchy skin conditions. Just grab a handful, chew or chop it up, and slap it on your irritated epithelial (voila! You have just made a poultice!). You will be amazed at how immediately this works, and once again, is a really fun wilderness first-aid trick with kids.
Apart from humans and chickens, all sorts of domestic and wild birds reap the benefits of this wintertime herb when pickings are scarce. I’ve seen wild geese (Branta sp.) and turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) pecking at chickweed. Ground beetles (Carabidae) are said to consume the seeds. Since beetles aren’t beautiful or showy, many people forget their important ecological role. Globally, beetles are the largest group of pollinators and are responsible for pollinating almost 90% of the 240,000 flowering plants that color our world. They are especially important pollinators for ancient species such as magnolias and spicebush, and Tennessee’s state tree, the Tulip Poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera).
Be sure to utilize chickweed when you can – this bashful, cool weather friend goes to seed and dries up quickly once the days start getting hotter and longer. I like to keep a little patch of it beneath the shade of our hemlocks and boxwoods so I can eat it all summer long, though it’s definitely tastier in the early springtime.