In the Garden:
Chickweed thrives in winter, even under snow, providing fresh salad greens.
Chickweed: The Green Monster
Every gardener has a personal nemesis in the garden. Mine is chickweed. The green carpet it produces is thick, luxuriant, and seems to spread before my eyes. Here in the cold, grim depths of winter, when I think I can sit back and relax from gardening chores, the chickweed flourishes.
Getting to Know Chickweed
I've done a little research on this pervasive, invasive weed. Originally from Europe, chickweed is now found all over the globe. Although more than thirteen plants have the common name of chickweed, the one most often found in our gardens is Stellaria media. Perhaps because of its abundance and high level of nutrition, chickweed is often fed to caged birds and chickens, hence its most familiar common name.
Chickweed has smooth, succulent, bright green, teardrop-shaped leaves about a half-inch long, arranged in pairs. The multibranched, trailing stems usually run along the ground rather than growing upright. An easy way to distinguish common chickweed, Stellaria media, from similar plants, such as mouse-ear chickweed, is to look closely at the stems. A line of minute hairs on one side of the stem will move to the opposite side of the stem at the stem joint. Another unusual trait is that the leaves close around the young shoots at night.
The 1/4-inch white flowers are star-shaped, giving rise to common names such as little star lady, starwort, and starweed. These close at night or when it's about to rain. Chickweed spreads by its abundantly produced seeds and by setting down roots wherever the stem joints touch the ground. A winter annual, it flourishes in cool weather. Seeds sprout in the fall, and plants grow throughout the winter months in full sun. In summer's heat, chickweed retreats to the shade or dies out entirely.
Chickweed for Your Health
Though it is unsupported by scientific studies, chickweed has a reputation in folk medicine for treating a broad spectrum of conditions. It is most commonly used as a soothing external remedy for cuts or to ease the itching associated with inflammatory skin conditions such as eczema - the leaves can simply be bruised and applied as a poultice or added to bath water. A tea or tincture taken internally supposedly eases rheumatism. There are no known side effects except for diarrhea when it is taken in large quantities.
Fresh chickweed has a refreshing, slightly tart flavor and is excellent in salads. It is a good source of vitamin C and also contains some B vitamins, beta-carotene, several glycosides and plant acids, and a variety of minerals.
Armed with this information, I now have several options besides swearing at the chickweed while hand-digging it and adding it to the compost pile. I try to remember what one long-ago herbalist wrote of chickweed, "It is a fine, soft, pleasing herb, under the dominion of the Moon. In a word it comforteth, digesteth, defendeth, and supporteth very notably."
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