Last Updated on August 9, 2023
Come learn all about chickweed: a special and nutritious herb. This article will explore how to identify and harvest chickweed, the various medicinal benefits it offers, potential side effects, and several ways to dry and use it. Chances are, it might be growing right in your backyard or neighborhood already!
Common chickweed is popular among foragers, homesteaders, herbalists, and native communities alike. It is especially useful for natural skincare, known to soothe rashes, itching and irritation. Growing wild at our new property, we love to use it to make healing topical salve! (See the salve tutorial here)
What is chickweed?
Common chickweed (Stellaria media) is a tender, edible, annual herb that grows during cool wet seasons. Originally native to Europe, chickweed has been naturalized and now grows throughout much of the United States, Canada, and beyond. It has been used throughout history in herbal medicine and skincare. Its tiny flowers offer nectar to elfin butterflies and other beneficial insects.
Other common names include birdweed, chickenwort, starwort and winterweed. Note that there are several related varieties of chickweed in the Stellaria genus. With “weed” in its name, it is often misunderstood or even demonized. If you Google the term chickweed, most of the results are about how to control or kill it – rather than make good use of it!
“The only difference between a flower and a weed is a judgment.”Wayne Dyer
Medicinal Use and Benefits of Chickweed
Chickweed offers numerous therapeutic benefits and nutrients. Historically, it has been used by Native Americans, herbalists, and other natural medicine practitioners to treat digestive issues, blood disorders, and respiratory ailments such as colds, coughs and sore throats. It is also used as an herbal remedy for wounds and skin health.
Chickweed is cooling, drying, anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and antifungal. This makes it excellent at soothing irritated skin including rashes, minor burns, eczema, psoriasis, sunburn, razor burn, insect bites, poison oak/ivy, or general itching and inflammation. Topically, chickweed can be used directly on the skin as a poultice, infused in oil, or in a salve or balm.
When used internally (e.g. via tincture, tea, or direct consumption), the saponins and natural lechinins found in chickweed can help to alleviate inflammation, reduce mucus and congestion, and improve metabolism and digestion. In large amounts, chickweed can act as a mild laxative, diuretic, and detoxifier.
Chickweed also contains numerous vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, including beta-carotene, calcium, iron, magnesium, and zinc. It offers especially high levels of Vitamin C, making it an important source of nutrients to prevent scurvy for early sailors and miners, much like wild Miner’s Lettuce!
Chickweed Identification and Characteristics
What does chickweed look like? How to identify chickweed
Common chickweed has long slender stems, dainty succulent ovate (pointed) leaves, and tiny white flowers. The flowers have 5 small petals, but they’re deeply lobed so it looks like 10 petals. Each plant sends out several long stems from a central cluster, forming a sparse or lanky rosette-shaped mound that grows 6 to 12 inches tall.
There are 3 keys to properly identify chickweed and distinguish it from any lookalikes:
- Chickweed has a single strip of hairs along one side of the stem (rather than hairs all over) – much like a mohawk. The location of the hair strip rotates between nodes or joints on the stem.
- The succulent-but-tender stems have a stretchy central core or “bone” inside. If you gently pull a stem apart, you should be able to see the elastic inner fibers between the outer stem you just split.
- When snapped or crushed, chickweed does not emit a white milky sap. If if has white sap, you have the wrong plant!
What parts of chickweed are edible or medicinal?
Chickweed stems, leaves, and flowers are all edible and medicinal. I have not come across anything that says its roots are necessarily “bad” or toxic, though they’re typically not used or consumed. Keep in mind that consuming too much at once can cause an upset stomach for some people.
What does chickweed taste like?
Chickweed tastes fresh, mild, grassy, and slightly sweet or floral. Some folks say the succulent leaves remind them of lettuce. Raw chickweed is often compared to the flavor of corn silks, while it’s likened to the flavor of spinach once cooked.
How does chickweed spread?
Chickweed is an annual plant that easily spreads by seed, popping back up year after year if allowed to grow unchecked. It can also grow new root shoots from the stems. Thus, it has become a common “weed” in lawns, parks, farms, and gardens. If you plan to grow chickweed at home, make sure it’s in a spot you don’t mind if it returns!
How to control chickweed organically
Hand-weeding is one organic way to control chickweed, and is most effective if done early when the plants are small (before going to seed). The whole plant and root should be pulled up and disposed of. Plant debris left sitting on the ground may re-root and reestablish itself.
Thick mulch (e.g. several inches of wood chips, bark, or a layer of cardboard) will also suppress its growth. Finally, white vinegar can also be used as a natural herbicide to kill chickweed. The stronger the acetic acid content, the more effective the vinegar will be.
Foraging and Harvesting Chickweed
When and where does chickweed grow?
Common chickweed can be found growing throughout most of North America, Asia, Europe, and other parts of the world. Chickweed grows during the cool season in damp soil following rain, often in shade or partial shade under trees or along creek beds. It thrives when temperatures are between 50 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit.
Chickweed grows in the springtime in most places, though it can also grow during the fall. It fades and dies back in the heat of summer, but will grow right through winter in many damp frost-free climates – including foggy coastal areas.
When foraging in the wild, avoid harvesting from locations that are potentially contaminated – such as directly along roadsides, or adjacent to a commercial farm or golf course. It’s best to forage in natural areas away from frequent human activity, and rinse it well before consuming!
How to plant and grow chickweed at home
If it doesn’t naturally grow in your area to forage, you can plant chickweed in your garden. It grows easily from seed, and seed is readily available online. Seed can be directly sown or scattered outdoors or started inside and transplanted out as seedlings.
Though you could plant it in a garden bed, I suggest growing chickweed in an underutilized shady area of the yard instead. Be sure to read the notes on spread and control below, because it is very likely to come back!
When and how to harvest chickweed
Harvesting chickweed is easy and straightforward. Harvest chickweed in springtime (or whenever it is growing in your area) when it is fresh and supple, before it starts to die back. For the best results, harvest chickweed in the morning or other cool time of day as it quickly wilts in the sun and after harvest.
To harvest chickweed, simply grab a handful and cut several inches of the tender tops with scissors or small garden shears. You could also harvest the entire plant, though then it wouldn’t re-grow for future harvests. Chickweed doesn’t hold up long in the refrigerator, so plan to use it within a couple days or dry it right away.
How to Dry Chickweed
Drying chickweed is the best way to preserve it, and prepare it to make infused oil, balm or salve. You can dry chickweed either in a food dehydrator or passively air dry it.
Using a food dehydrator ensures it will quickly and thoroughly dry, reducing risk of mold or spoilage in storage. In a dehydrator, evenly spread the plant material out on the dehydrator trays so air can circulate around it. Use a low temperature setting (95-105F) to retain its beneficial compounds and nutrients.
To air dry chickweed, place it in a woven basket, on a screen, hung in a bunch, or on a specialized herb drying rack in a warm, dry location with good airflow. Place a fan nearby if needed to expedite drying. Let it sit until it’s completely dry, brittle and easily crumbles. Once dry, store it in an airtight container in a cool, dark location.
Ways to Use Chickweed
Combined with a carrier oil of choice, dried chickweed can be used to make a rich and soothing infused oil. The oil can then be used on its own (e.g. as massage or body oil) or as an ingredient to make homemade chickweed salve, balm, lip balm, and more. These topical creations are ideal to have on hand when rashes, burns, or other skin irritations arise. Learn more about making herb-infused oils here, including carrier oil options. Then pop over to this tutorial for our easy chickweed salve recipe.
Raw or dried chickweed can also be used to make tea or a concentrated herbal tincture. Dried and ground, it’s also used to make capsule supplements. Check with your doctor or naturopath for guidance on internal use.
Chickweed can be eaten raw or cooked, though its tender texture makes it most palatable when raw – such as added to salads, or even blended in a smoothie. Since it tends to be stringy, it’s usually chopped up before it’s eaten. Chickweed is great with scrambled eggs, raw or lightly sautéed. You can also toss a handful into soup or stew, but do so in the last few minutes to prevent overcooking.
Chickweed for Chickens
Birds also like to eat chickweed – including chickens! It’s is a great, nutrient-rich treat or forage fodder for backyard chicken flocks. While foraging, chickens should rip the chickweed into smaller pieces on their own (as they bite at it). However, I suggest chopping up any chickweed you harvest yourself before tossing it to the chickens. Otherwise, long stringy pieces of plant material may increase the risk of impacted crop.
Pretty neat little “weed”, isn’t it?
That sums up today’s lesson on common chickweed. I will be back soon with a follow-up post on how to use it to make infused oil, salve or balm! Please let me know if you have any questions in the comments below, and pin or share this post if you found it useful. Thank you so much for tuning in today. Happy foraging!
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