Spring means chickweed in many places around the world. This little, unassuming weed is packed full of nutrition and goodness for man and beast alike. Possibly Eurasian in origin, chickweed has spread and established a foothold around the world and even though there are numerous species, all of them are edible. It is winter-hardy in a large portion of world, however its quick growth and maturity rate often makes it seem like an annual and so it survives pretty much everywhere.
Stellaria media, often known as common chickweed was a welcome sight for our forefathers. This cool season plant was highly anticipated after winter months of eating only preserved food. It was one of the first plants to wake up in the spring and people were quick to take advantage of the opportunity to put fresh greens on the table. Chickweed is packed full of vitamins and minerals that our bodies need, including iron, beta carotene, calcium, magnesium, potassium and B vitamins. It has a light, fresh flavor similar to spinach and can be used in the same manner. Chop it and add to smoothies, salads, egg dishes and pestos. The Japanese even have a special dish they prepare each spring called Nanakusa-Gayu, which roughly translates to Seven Herb Rice Soup. Each herb is specially chosen for health benefits and chickweed is included. As with any new food, it is best to try just a little at first just in case you have an allergy, however this plant seems pretty benign.
Chickweed was also part of the frontier herbal pharmacy and was used for a number of ailments. Astringent properties made it an excellent choice for expectorants and diuretics. In fact, chickweed tonic was one of the first weight-loss drugs, probably because of the diuretic properties. It is best used for external ailments such as rashes, bug bites and burns. One interesting treatment was for splinters. Crushed chickweed leaves applied to the area where a splinter is embedded tightens the skin and actually pushes the splinter closer to the surface.
It is an fascinating little plant with some curious habits. Each evening, the mature leaves fold over the emerging buds and new growth as a protective shield. Given that the plant wakes up so early in the spring, this is probably a defense mechanism to protect the young growth from frost. Chickweed forms dense mats where it is happy and it is happiest with a neutral pH and shady to partially sunny conditions. The common chickweed, Stellaria media can be distinguished from its cousin, mouse ear chickweed, Cerastium fontanum because it has a single small line of hairs growing down each stem, while the mouse-ear chickweed stems are completely hairy. Both are edible, however the common chickweed is more nutrient-dense. If you are plagued by an excessive amount of chickweed, apply some lime to acidify the soil some, since it tends to avoid acid conditions. This goes for farmers as well. Chickweed competes with some small grains and because of its heavy seed set, can over-run some agricultural fields.
What's good for man, is also good for beasts and chickweed didn't get its name because it sounds cute. It is actually a very beneficial food for poultry, especially in the spring. The minerals and nutrients aid in egg production and are also great for growing chicks. Indoor caged pets can benefit from a chickweed snack too. Hamsters, guinea pigs, turtles and lizards are all herbivores and will enjoy chickweed in the spring. Just make sure that the plants haven't been contaminated by automobile exhaust or sprayed with any herbicides or pesticides.
Foraging can be a fun experience and even though most of us will never have to rely on wild plants for survival, it never hurts to learn what you can and can't eat, along with what is useful in the wilderness first-aid kit. This knowledge could one day save your life.