This spring, I spent some time getting to know a common North American “volunteer” plant that pops up in many garden beds and lawns and is nearly always plucked up and discarded as a pesky “weed.” While chickweed, or Stellaria media, can certainly stretch out where you don’t want her to, I’ve learned that keeping her around can have some great benefits.
I was immediately struck by her delicacy. I watched, the first time I met her, as my teacher pulled her gently up from the ground, and she graciously sprang free without the least bit of resistance.
She gives. Both in the traditional sense—offering a dense array of micronutrients ranging from vitamin C to iron, calcium and magnesium—and in a more figurative sense, as illustrated by her willingness to part ways with the Earth. She is flexible, flowing, meandering, happy amidst disturbance but always drawn to softness, moistness. She shows not one sign of rigidity. She’s cool. She goes with the flow.
I eventually came to recognize her from a distance. It took time and patience, as I repeatedly confused her with horse herb (Calyptocarpus vialis, also known as Straggler Daisy) for the first several weeks, even when I was nearly sure I’d found her. Both have simple leaves in the shape of a pointed egg or rounded spade and grow prostate, or close to the ground.
Before she flowers, you will know her color—a vital, springtime green, brighter and lighter than her lookalikes. It is the green of new growth, the green of a half-peeled cucumber, pulsing with life, almost luminescent.
Once her blooms arrive, she is impossible to mistake. Stellar indeed, her five white petals are deeply cleft, giving the illusion of ten tiny points—a sprinkling of delicate stars.
She grows in clusters. Where horse herb will form a thick, even carpet, she will create a curly, springy patch that reaches up over the grass line as she matures. Eventually, she drops down elegant, curved seed heads full of seeds as quaint as she, like the flick of a delicate wrist adorned with light, breezy jewels.
She joins us in the warmest days of winter and coolest days of spring. She is eaten during the Japanese springtime Festival of Seven Herbs, Nanakusa-no-sekku, on January 7. Along with radish and turnip, she is added to the festival’s symbolic rice porridge, nanakusa-gayu.
Brewed in a tea, she gently soothes mucous membranes, aiding with coughs, sore throats, rheumatism and bronchitis. Externally, she’s great for skin irritation, swelling, and lesions. Herbalist Susan Weed says she is a favorite for mothers treating a young one’s case of pink eye, and describes her as “superb at dissolving cysts and benign tumors.”
She has long been known in wives’ tales and folk remedies as a slimming herb. Brewed as a tea, she aids in curbing cravings and smoothing digestion. Her role in healthy weight loss is likely due in part to her ability to aid in the absorption and effective utilization of nutrients in the body. Her ability to break down unwanted matter applies to excess fat cells, too.
But she herself offers an array of healthful vitamins and minerals. She packs in high levels of manganese, zinc, phosphorus, potassium, vitamins A and B, and folic acid.
Now that we’re in the thick of summer, chickweed has already retreated until next year. But keep an eye out for her around January and February, and try using her in salads, pestos or dressings rather than throwing her away.
Herb Basics: Chickweed: A Healthy Spring Green. 2004. The Herb Companion.
Stellaria Media. 2012, June 6. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stellaria_media#cite_note-1
Weed, Susan S. Chickweed is a Star! the column vine. 2007. Retrieved from: http://www.gardenplum.com/columnvine/chickweedisastar.html
Originally published for PK4 Media.