Well, today was pretty ridiculously hot- even now at 9:30 at night, I feel the approach of summer- like a galloping beast. In Lismore NSW (Australia), we are known for the… unique quality of our heat. Stifling is one word for it. In these parts we are at the end of our chickweed season (or at least in my suburban experience, out in the wetter forest-y parts it may be hanging in there). And so, for those in this area, there is no time to delay if you want to feast on chickweed. For others just beginning your real spring warmth, time to find your juicy chickweed patch and start pickin’.
The reason I love chickweed, is that it is so humble. It does it’s little thing in the garden, it may mass over a bed like a stringy cob web… but, it doesn’t take much to move it on, pull it out, and it doesn’t last. For the short while it’s around it is an often under-utilised weed that most urban dwellers could do with becoming more acquainted with. Why not get to know some wild plants growing around you and foraging in your yard/neighbourhood, whether you have a garden or not? Or finding a particularly good patch on the way home and picking a bunch? These little daily connections with the earth are good for our sense of the big picture. Big picture leads to perspective. Perspective leads to grain of salt. Grain of salt leads to relaxation. Relaxation leads to joyfulness. So hey, by practicing a bit of urban hunter gatherer-ness, we are de-stressing and improving our inner wellbeing. And we haven’t even eaten it yet! GREAT!
The botanical name for Chickweed is Stellaria media– which has a beautiful translation of “in the midst of little stars” in Latin, and most probably describes its’ beautiful white star shaped flowers. Now it is important in the southern hemisphere and especially in these parts, to distinguish between Stellaria media (the chickweed I’m banging on about), and the so-called “Tropical chickweed” Drymaria cordata– which I don’t believe it is related to, or used in the same way as Stellaria. They do often grow around each other however, and can be easily mixed up if you are not familiar with them. Chickweed, when it’s ready to rock, is a juicy, tender little plant. As it gets older it begins to get a bit stringy and fibrous, and much of the foliage disappears as it goes to seed. This is kinda where a lot of the chickweed in my yard is at at the moment… not so delicious. You want the stuff growing in the moist corner of the yard, in the shadows. It’s perky green and full of leaves and little flowers…
Here is some in my garden just last month
Well, most often chickweed is used topically. It’s a fantastic healing remedy for the skin and is often applied in a cream or as a poultice for skin conditions such as eczema, psoriasis, urticaria and rashes of chronic nature especially where there is heat… it is a very cooling herb. It is used in first aid for stings, wounds and rashes of acute origin as well, like sunburn/heat rash, allergy/hives as well as boils, ulcers, splinters, cold sores and even chickenpox/measles rashes. As well, it is antibacterial, and helps prevent infections. Get acquainted with chickweed, and let me tell you- NOTHING is more impressive then being able to help some poor stranger with a bee sting by chewing up a blob a chickweed and then applying the green glob to the site of the sting… wow, they’ll be so grateful for your survival skills! … on second thought, perhaps maybe just chew up the chickweed for yourself or a loved one. But seriously, this is actually a quick and easy way to make a poultice for any unbroken skin wound. It is also used as a poultice or compress for eye inflammations, such as conjunctivitis, pinkeye, sties or general sore irritated eyes. In this case I would make a tea of the chickweed, strain it and wet clean muslin cloth in the tea and hold it to the closed eye/ or mash a small amount in warm water and place in a piece of muslin cotton and fold over, so that it looks a bit like a tea bag- then hold over the eye. Alternatively ,the infused oil/ointment of chickweed can be placed around the eye. Avoid getting any of the herb in the eye, of course.
When I first learnt about chickweed, I was told it is never to be dried. It is a moisture rich herb and much of it’s medicinal power is in it’s succulent/cooling nature. Take that out of the equation and you really don’t get the magic of chickweed. Kinda like dehydrated watermelon. I’ve actually seen this… I mean, just because you CAN doesn’t mean you SHOULD…right??? Chickweed is the same, it is best fresh. This is probably why it doesn’t have as strong a reputation for it’s internal uses- it’s commercial value is reduced due to the fact that it’s seasonally available and is best used fresh. However, traditional herbal medicine tells us it is used for MANY internal conditions. Again due to it’s cooling nature, it is used generally for internal inflammations. It is used to sooth the mucous lining of the digestive tract and relieves symptoms of wind, colic and constipation. It has a reputation for treating bronchitis and lung infections, though I have never used it in this way personally. It is a diuretic, but both gentle and supportive to the kidney function and is an excellent purifier of the blood. Because of it’s soothing nature, it’s fantastic used in cases of cystitis and urinary tract infection. It has also been touted as a weight loss aid, perhaps through it’s diuretic action.
It is used as a tea/gargle in sore throats, mouth inflammations (ulcers/gingivitis) and also in nasal/sinus infections. In this case I would make an steam bath for inhalation. The best way keep it on hand, when out of season, is in oils and creams which are often sold commercially. Or you can make your own. It is also less frequently made in to a tincture/liquid extract. This is one little unassuming herb with a BIG resume… living right under most of our noses…!
As a food
It is as a food that I enjoy chickweed the most. Again, we keep it in it’s simple fresh state. I would never dream of cooking chickweed, it is perfect raw. It has a gentle flavour that reminds me of snow peas- fresh and green mixed -with the taste of corn silk. Sounds a bit luxurious, right?? It can be used in so many places. Chickweed in pesto (mixed with rocket, basil) or other dips, added to salads with your mixed greens. It works beautifully in Tabouli or similar grain based salads. As a garnish on the top of cooked foods, or indeed in green smoothies!
Chickweed is an excellent source of vitamins A, B complex, C, and rutin (a bioflavonoid), as well as iron, calcium, potassium, phosphorus, zinc, manganese, sodium, copper, and silica. It also contains the fatty acid- gamma-linolenic acid (GLA). Interestingly the medicinal effects of GLA are similar to those of chickweed- it is recommended for a variety of skin problems, female reproductive hormone imbalances, and for arthritis. It is powerfully anti-inflammatory, reduces water retention, and acts as tonic for the liver.
It is a safe delicious herb full of nutrients and cooling anti-inflammatory effects- however, if you do find a particularly LARGE patch, and decide on going totally ape crazy over chickweed, remember- it is also a mild laxative, yeah? Pace yourself… Get in to the habit of identifying it around your neighbourhood or in your yard-early spring in both the northern and southern hemisphere, and start nibbling on it. Start thinking of it as a food source and a possible medicine. It’s free and it’s everywhere, but only for a limited time… so ACT NOW!