Common Chickweed, Winter weed or Chickenwort!

The flower close up as you don’t normally see it! Picture by Matt Summers.

Chickweed or Stellaria media is one of the weeds mentioned on the RHS site. It is a member of the Caryophyllaceae or Pink/Campion Family which is number 88 in Stace. The chickweed is middle-sized (‘media’) between its smaller and larger brethren. Its tiny flowers are star-like (‘Stella’).

I will be using a different flora than the usual Stace for this and the following blog on  members of this family, which is ‘The Wild Flower Key’ by F. Rose.  You’ll find a link later in the text.

The keys in this book are more straightforward to me. The key to the main Campion family (Caryophyllaceae) is  subdivided in 6 more keys. First, all the Pinks or Dianthus species. Then all the Campions and Catchflies (or Silene and Lychnis in their scientific name). Next the Chickweeds and Stitchworts (Stellaria spp.), which we will talk about soon. Then the Mouse-Ears (or Cerastium), the Sandworts (Arenaria & Minuartia) and finally the Pearlworts or Sagina species. Sagina procumbens is an interesting native species with a nice storey behind it.

Don’t you just love all these common names?

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So, this week is about the Chickweed, which is an annual or even an ephemeral, which is to say that its life cycle is very short: it may flower a few times in the course of a single year and its stems and leaves may persist for all twelve months. It has bright green,  watery leaves which grow rapidly especially in fertile soils. It also produces large quantities of seed which germinate easily in favourable conditions.

Hedgerow Medicine has a good chapter praising Chickweed:

‘This is the best-known herbal remedy for itchy skin and hot skin inflammations of various types. Chickweed is a soothing, nutritious and cooling herb, with a reputation for clearing stubborn, long-lasting bodily conditions.

It has special affinities for the eyes, lungs and chest, and can be eaten as a food. As you’ll see, it is far more than chickenfeed!’

Edible Uses:

  • It has long been eaten by country people as a salad plant or as a vegetable, treated like spinach.
  • With minerals and vitamin C it is nutritious and may, like cress, garnish a sandwich.
  • Poultry keepers know how avidly the birds eat the leaves and the fruits.
  •  It is one of the ingredients of the symbolic dish consumed in the Japanese spring-time festival, Nanakusa-no-sekku.

    Toxicity

    S. media contains plant chemicals known as saponins, which can be toxic to some species when consumed in large quantities. Chickweed has been known to cause saponin poisoning in cattle. However, as the animal must consume several kilos of chickweed in order to reach a toxic level, such deaths are extremely rare.

    Traditional Medicine Use:

    The plant has medicinal properties and is used in folk medicine. It has been used as a remedy to treat itchy skin conditions and pulmonary diseases.        17th century herbalist John Gerard recommended it as a remedy for mange. The plant was used by the Ainu for treating bruises and aching bones. Stems were steeped in hot water before being applied externally to affected areas.

Chickweed as a menace or food and medicine?

Medicinal Uses:

  • It is used to soothe itchy and irritable skin conditions. Although the most common application is on the skin,
  • It may be taken internally as a remineraliser especially in depleted, rheumatic individuals.
  • Father Kneipp would have us extend its obvious soothing influence to the respiratory tract where it would combine well with Marshmallow leaves and Primrose flowers or root.
  • Modern herbalists prescribe it for iron-deficiency anaemia (for its high iron content), as well as for skin diseases, bronchitis, rheumatic pains, arthritis and period pain. Not all of these uses are supported by scientific evidence.

Other uses:

  • It favours rich, organic and moisture retentive soils and can grow into large groundcovering plants. With all this greenmatter it protects the bare soil from the elements or can be added to the compost heap when we need to use the soil.
  • It is a favored food of finches and many other seed-eating birds.
  • Chickweeds are used as food plants by the larvae of some Lepidoptera species including Angle ShadesHeart and DartRiband WaveSetaceous Hebrew Character and the Coleophora case-bearers C. coenosipennella (feeds exclusively on Stellaria spp), C. lineolea (recorded on S. graminea), C. lithargyrinella (recorded on S. holostea), C. solitariella (feeds exclusively on S. holostea) and C. striatipennell.

More about  other useful as well as  pretty Caryophyllaceae in next week’s blog!

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