This week I’m roaming empty lots and old gardens, foraging for chickweed.
Chickweed is one of my favorite wild greens. I grow it in containers on my balcony, but my containers don’t yield as much as I want. So I’m out in the cool, moist weather, scanning the ground for the soft little herb, because come summer, it will disappear.
It’s not only a tasty wild vegetable, it’s medicine too.
The mild, herbal, almost-sour, almost-salty taste of chickweed is a welcome spring green to toss into the salad bowl. My grandchildren love it and call it “flowers.” It’s too delicate to cook, so I layer it into sandwiches, like lettuce. This afternoon’s cheese and chickweed sandwich has a little fresh cilantro that sprouted in my chickweed container.
But usually I chop the leggy stems and gently mix them into salads. Or I’ll scatter some over an omelet before I fold it over. Sometimes I just grab a handful and eat it like that.
The chickweed in the photos above is unusually large; that’s because the plants are from my containers, where they’re undisturbed and well-watered. Found on the ground, it looks more like this:
It’s called chickweed because birds love it. I used to keep budgies and stick chickweed through the bars of their cage for a little snack. They’d peck away at it. My youngest daughter, then a toddler, thought it cool to feed the birds chickweed with one hand and nosh on some herself, with the other. An innocent communion, sharing food with the birds.
Chickweed’s so full of vitamin C, eating it can prevent scurvy. And it’s got plenty of vitamins A and D, and B vitamins, plus calcium and potassium, magnesium, phosphorus and more. It’s said to dissolve cysts and reduce inflammation internally if the tincture – herb infused in alcohol – is taken faithfully for up to a year. I’ve never used it for internal troubles, but have often used the herb on family members to draw out infected matter from wounds, boils, and cysts.
Chickweed’s my absolute favorite cure for eye infections. To use the fresh herb, crush a handful between clean palms to release some juice. Apply it to the infected eye and hold it there, waiting until it feels hot. Then throw it out, wash your hands, and do it once more with a new handful of the herb. Often only one application will do the trick. It’s important to have clean hands and use fresh herb for each application, to avoid spreading infected matter. You’ll need to pick off bits of chickweed that stuck to your skin afterward, but it’s not a big deal, especially as it cures even a stubborn infection almost immediately.
A strong tea of chickweed – little water, lots of dry herb – is used in the same way, only you dip clean cotton in the strained tea and as with the fresh, wait for it to feel hot. Sometimes I make a little chickweed eye plaster when I’m tired, just to refresh my eyes, and it does.
To identify chickweed, look for the squarish stem with a line of delicate hairs running around and up. This photo shows it. Look closely.
The best way to identify it is to find the white flowers that look like tiny stars, which gives the herb its Latin name, Stellaria media. The five white petals are so deeply divided, they look like ten. See them?
To the left, and interspersed with the chickweed, and drooping slightly, you’ll see chickweed’s toxic look-alike, a euphorbia commonly called spurge. It can make you pretty sick if you eat it much of it. It’s supposed to be good for dissolving warts, although that’s a piece of folk medicine I haven’t tried.
Below you see the differences between the two. Spurge has a smooth stem, no line of hairs. Its leaves are more oval than round. While chickweed stands up, spurge’s stems droop. Spurge’s color is yellower than chickweed’s, although its hard to tell in the photo. The flowers are yellow also.
Chickweed to the left, spurge to the right. Finally, you can bite into a leaf – that tiny amount shouldn’t harm you – and if it doesn’t have that pleasant, slightly salty/sour taste of chickweed, it’s spurge.
Another thing I love about chickweed is its delicate, mysterious beauty.
Good hunting! And if you want to grow chickweed, find some of the flowering herb and let the flowers dry. They will be loaded with tiny red seeds. Scatter them over the ground or in containers filled with dirt. Next year your crop will come up, and all the years after, if you let some of it flower before harvesting it.
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