Benefits of chickweed—gourmet salad green and medicinal herb
Curious to connect with the bountiful benefits of chickweed? You're a woman after my own heart!
Chickweed first emerges in the early spring. The fruit trees are blooming, the birds are back, the sun is rising earlier each day, and it's time to start clearing a space for this year's garden. But it goes without saying that the weeds will already have gotten the jump on you.
"If you can't beat 'em, join 'em," the saying goes. But in this case, a more apt formulation might be, "If you can't beat 'em, eat 'em!" And before you start clearing out those weeds, remember that, unbeknownst to you, your garden may already be producing gourmet salad greens.
You've probably seen peppercress, a wild mustard green that's related to broccoli, with its four tiny white petals on each flower. Dandelion is opening its sunshine flowers about now. And then there's plantain, whose parallel veins run up the bright green leaves. All of these can be eaten or made into medicine.
But if you're lucky, common chickweed (known to botanists as Stellaria media) will have made itself at home in your garden beds by now. And in spring, chickweed's "star in the middle" shows white and bright.
Before you tear out this lovely little weed, let me tell you—you’ll want the benefits of chickweed at your kitchen table and in your medicine chest!
Table of contents
- Chickweed identification
- Fun ways to prepare and eat chickweed
- Harvesting common chickweed
- Bring the benefits of chickweed home to your garden
- Benefits of chickweed as an herbal medicine
- Making chickweed tincture or vinegar
- Summing up chickweed benefits
If you’re not sure what you have is common chickweed, look for these characteristics for chickweed identification:
- Egg or oblong-shaped leaves growing on opposite sides
- A line of fine hairs running along only one side of the stem (The star lady's hairs are tiny, so you may need a magnifying glass for this)
- In spring, chickweed’s “star in the middle” shows white and brights with eight small petals
Of course, it's imperative to positively identify any wild edibles before chowing down. And when in doubt, consult one who knows.
Fun ways to prepare and eat chickweed
Chickweed is my favorite salad green. It tastes just the way it looks: mild, gentle and bright green!
As a sister of mine says, "Eating a chickweed salad makes me happy—I find myself laughing out loud." Note that chickweed benefits extend beyond the palette. Common chickweed is loaded with calcium, potassium, iron, phosphorus, manganese, vitamin C, B vitamins and even protein.
Chickweed, used in many herbal weight-loss formulas, also contains saponins (soapy substances that help dissolve unneeded fat cells). Wild foods in general give our bodies the exact balance of nutrients that we evolved to eat. And with optimum nourishment, we're less likely to crave empty calories.
When this versatile green is in season, my chickweed rice salad is always a big hit. Just mix equal parts chopped chickweed and cooked rice, then stir in some olive oil, minced garlic and salt to taste.
It's even more delicious with chopped walnuts and crumbled feta cheese. Another great way to introduce your friends and family to chickweed is the BCT (bacon, chickweed and tomato sandwich). Chickweed also works well in pasta salads, omelets and potato salads.
Harvesting common chickweed
The easiest way to harvest chickweed is with scissors, as if you were giving it a haircut (leave the lower portion of the plant so it can continue producing).
Chickweed often shares space with one of several wild mints, which are harmless but taste icky. Watch what you're doing, so you don't mix in dirty, old or brown chickweed, or other plants you can't identify.
By harvesting in this way, I don't need to wash or pick through it—it can go straight into the salad bowl. Chickweed's my gourmet guru!
Bring the benefits of chickweed home to your garden
Chickweed loves cool, wet weather, so it becomes lush in spring and fall. But for most of the 10 years that I've lived in these mountains, I've harvested chickweed all winter long—often brushing snow aside to get at the plants! It shrinks down in response to the cold, with small, thick leaves, but it's still delicious and good for you.
In summer, chickweed dies down to a brown, stringy mat, its seeds packed into beak-shaped pods. That's the time to plant it in your own garden so you can easily access the benefits of chickweed.
Many gardeners curse chickweed, but by learning to work with it, many farmers and gardeners have found that it can make a wonderful cover crop, as an alternative to bare soil or mulching.
Because it's low-growing, it doesn't compete with taller plants for sunlight. And since the roots are shallow, it's easy to pull out when it gets in the way.
When I started my last garden, I wanted to encourage chickweed as a companion to my vegetables. In the early summer, I found a patch of chickweed (by then just a brown mat loaded with seeds), put a bunch of this plant material into a plastic bag, and brought it home, where I—God forbid—spread it across my garden beds.
When the cool rains began that fall, we were delighted to see the chickweed germinate. For years now, that same patch has blessed my family and me with an abundant supply of lush chickweed. Most years, in fact, we eat more chickweed than any other green from our garden.
Benefits of chickweed as an herbal medicine
Besides gourmet wild salads, you can also make your own herbal medicines from this valuable "weed." Using common chickweed from your backyard, it's easy to make herbal vinegar, tincture or poultice.
An organic farmer friend of mine called last week to say, "The chickweed is taking over here! I'll be plowing in a few days. Can you come get it first?" We packed up our scissors, jars, organic raw apple-cider vinegar and 100 proof alcohol and headed out for the year's first herbal-medicine harvest.
The benefits of chickweed poultice include healing rashes, cuts, itches and infections. It has a particular affinity for the eyes, as my friend Pam and her daughter Zelda discovered. At age 4, Zelda was having recurrent bouts of conjunctivitis. Each time, Pam would take her to their doctor, who would prescribe antibiotics.
The infection would go away for a few weeks, only to come back with a vengeance.
By the time Pam heard about chickweed, she was willing to try anything. The next time Zelda woke up with her eyes sealed shut with pus, her mother crushed a handful of chickweed leaves from their garden and placed it gently on her closed lids, letting her know that this was to help her eyes heal. She then placed a warm, wet washcloth on top.
"That feels really good, Mom," said Zelda. After 10 minutes, her mother removed the poultice, was able to wipe away the pus, and Zelda opened her puffy eyes.
Gazing at the chickweed at her bedside, she said: "Mom! That's the star-flower plant that's by my favorite rock! Can we do that again?"
They used poultices of chickweed several times a day for the next few days, and the infection healed faster than it ever had with antibiotics. More importantly, it stayed clear – for many months. When it finally did come back, Zelda went out to collect her plant ally himself. He's had no more conjunctivitis ever since!
So the next time the chickweed gets the jump on you, consider it not a curse but a thank-you gift from Mother Earth for creating a fertile piece of ground.
And if Zelda's story has you wondering about other herbal medicines to include in your family first aid kit, feel free dive deeper with my blog article on wise woman herbal medicines.
Making chickweed tincture or vinegar
Make a chickweed tincture in 3 simple steps
- Stuff a jar full of freshly harvested chickweed and then fill the jar with alcohol.
- Cap it and let it sit for six weeks
- Strain out and compost the plant material. Store the tincture in a brown dropper bottle, taking 25-50 drops at a time.
The benefits of chickweed tincture have traditionally been to nourish the kidneys, bladder and liver, as well as for irritated skin conditions and cooling the body during fevers or hot flashes.
To make vinegar, just substitute vinegar for the alcohol (if you have a metal lid, line it with plastic because vinegar rusts metal).
Keep the mineral-rich vinegar on your kitchen table; it makes a tasty seasoning on cooked greens or in homemade salad dressings and marinades. That way you can enjoy chickweed all year round!
Before you run out to harvest, you may want to grab my one page handout to help you keep the details straight on making herbal tinctures, infusions, vinegars, salves and oils: Wise Woman Medicine Making Chart. My students keep this concise guide close at hand as a clear reference on the why's and how's of using and making the various herbal preparations.
Summing up chickweed benefits
Medicinally, chickweed benefits the kidneys, bladder and liver and can cool the body during fevers when taken as a tincture. As a poultice, chickweed can heal rashes, cuts, itches and infection better than most topical antibiotics.
Be on the lookout for chickweed this spring and enjoy this tasty herb in wild salads or herbal vinegars. Happy harvesting!
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