Common Chickweed, Winter weed or Chickenwort! Part 1 of Caryophyllaceae (the Alsinoideae)

A typical sprawling plant of Chickweed (picture by I, Hugo – Wikipedia)

Chickweed or Stellaria media

is one of the weeds mentioned on the RHS site.

So a good reason for a post on this plant and its relatives!

It is a member of the Caryophyllaceae or Pink/Campion Family which is number 94 in Stace. 

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.  

The keys in this book are more straightforward.

The key to the main Campion family (Caryophyllaceae) is  subdivided in 6 more keys:

Don’t you just love all these common names?

We begin on the next page with the four last groups, which are the more weedy sorts!

The coloured backgrounds are blue for general interesting facts. Green for all sorts of uses such as food, ornamental, wildlife, etc. Pink for medicinal use or if the plant is poisonous!

Stellaria or Chickweeds

A close up of ordinary Chickweed shows its delicate star-like flowers! (picture by Kaldari-Wikipedia)

Chickweed or Stellaria media

Its tiny flowers are star-like (‘Stella’) and it is middle-sized (‘media’) between its smaller and larger brethren.

It 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.

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.  The 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.

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. striatipennella.

other Stellaria spp. or Chickweeds and Stitchworts.

There are 7 other species of Stellaria and one related species which is called Myosoton aquaticum or Water Chickweed in The Flower Key. Other more succulent species will probably have similar medicinal uses.

Young leaves and stems can be cooked and are sweet and tender. They are very rich in minerals according to PFAF.

Medicinal Use:

A decoction of the leaves is used as a galactogogue and the plant is used in the treatment of fistula.

The Stellarias are mostly similar looking and growing on different, mostly damp habitats. Some good pictures and descriptions can be found here.

Finally a nice picture of Mike Poulton of Stellaria holostea or Greater Stitchwort which is an attractive species!

Stellaria holostea or Greater Stitchwort

Cerastium spp or Mouse-Ears

There are 8 species of Mouse-ears mentioned in the Wildflower Key. The most obvious difference with the above genus Stellaria is that it is mostly from dryer habitats and therefore has more hairy leaves and stems instead of a succulent look. Some good pictures and descriptions of four species can be found here.

Cerastium tomentosum or Snow-in-Summer is an introduced species sometimes seen in gardens.

Cerastium semidecanderum or Little Mouse-Ear Chickweed on roadside bank near car park – Sutton Park visit on 26-04-2016 (Mike Poulton)

There is also mention of Moenchia erecta or Upright Chickweed which is not like a Chickweed according to the Flower Key. This is a small annual which grows on summer-droughted soils.

Minuartia spp., Moehringia, Honckenya & Arenaria or Sandworts

There are various species of Minuartia on the British Isles.

See more info on M. verna or Spring Sandwort, M. rubella, M. hybrida and M. stricta.

Honckenya peploides on the Baltic Sea coast, Poland (picture by Krzysztof Ziarnek, Wikipedia)

Honckenya peploides or Sea Sandwort

Both the leaves and the seeds  are used as food. The shoots and leaves are rich in vitamin A and vitamin C and can be used as a green leafy vegetable either raw or cooked. They can also be fermented to prepare a sauerkraut-like preserve, and in Iceland are fermented in whey to produce a drink. The seeds are small in size and time-consuming to gather; they can be ground up and added to flour or used as a garnish.

Some good pictures and descriptions of the former four genera can be found here.

Polycarpon tetraphyllum (picture courtesy Wikipedia)

Polycarpon tetraphyllum or Four-leaved Allseed is another small annual in the Caryophyllaceae.

Sagina spp. , Scleranthus spp., and Illecebrum

Scleranthus annuus (picture by Fornax at German Wikipedia)

Scleranthus annuus or Annual Knawel

This curious annual has got one medicinal use according to PFAF: The plant is used in Bach flower remedies – the keywords for prescribing it are ‘Uncertainty’, ‘Indecision’, ‘Hesitancy’ and ‘Unbalance’

Scleranthus perennis or Perennial Knawel with 2 subspecies has no known uses.

Illecebrum verticillatum (picture by C T Johansson, Wikipedia)

Illecebrum verticillatum or Coral-necklace. Most plants of this annual can be found on the south coast of the U.K.

There are 6 species of Sagina or Pearlworts mentioned in The Flower Key

Sagina procumens or Procumbent Pearlwort (picture by Manfred Morgner, Wikipedia)

Sagina procumbens or Procumbent Pearlwort

We finish of with Sagina procumbens or Procumbent Pearlwort, which is a common and tiny ‘weed’ and has several myths, legends and magic mentioned in Wikipedia:

It is said to have been the first plant on which Christ set his foot when he came to Earth, or when he rose from the dead. In the highlands of Scotland it was supposed to have derived supernatural powers from having been blessed by Christ, St Bride and St Columba.

A spray of it hung from the door lintel gave protection against fairies, especially those who made a practise of spiriting people away.

If pearlwort were stuck in a bull’s fore-hooves, the cows with which it mated and the calves and the milk they produced were safeguarded from ills. If a cow ate the herb, its calves and milk, and all who drank the milk, were also protected against fairies.

For the young village maiden, pearlwort brought a bonus. If drunk in an infusion, or used merely to wet the lips, it would attract her favoured lover, and if a piece of it were in the girl’s mouth when she kissed him, he was bound to her for ever.

For pictures and descriptions of these last genera you can look here.

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

Leave a Reply