The name "chickweed" most notably describes Common Chickweed (Stellaria media), although there are several other chickweeds, all in the genus Stellaria.
Common Chickweed is a cool weather plant native to Europe that has widely naturalized in the United States and throughout the world. It’s often found in lawns and other areas of sun to partial shade in moist soil.
In a temperate climate like our southern Appalachians, chickweed normally appears during the cooler temperatures of fall and dies back in the late spring or early summer heat, but it’s typically considered an early spring plant. It thrives between 53° and 68°F.
The stringy but succulent stems of chickweed can grow up to a foot and a half or so and produce tiny white flowers throughout the growing season.
Its pointed oval-shaped leaves grow in pairs opposite each other, fairly far apart on the stem. Leaves can be anywhere from 1/4 to 1 1/4 inch long. Chickweed flowers are 1/8 to 1/4 inch in diameter and consist of five double-lobed white petals supported by a whorl of five green sepals. The flowers somewhat resemble carnation flowers--chickweed is actually a member of the carnation family, Caryophyllaceae.
It has a few lookalikes but a few distinguishing factors are:
- Chickweed does not have milky sap. Try pulling the stem apart. If there’s no milky sap, you’re more likely to have chickweed.
- It has a line of “hair” along the stem, which alternates between the joints.
- The inner stem of chickweed is elastic, so if you gently pull the stem apart, the outer sheath will separate while the inner part will stretch.
Chickweed is a not only a super plant in terms of its nutritional acclaim, but it’s also delicious. The flavor is often compared with corn silk. It’s pleasant and mild.
Chickweed is excellent raw--use it like sprouts; eat it in sandwiches, wraps, etc. And of course it’s a great base for salad.
It’s also great cooked and makes a good substitute for spinach. Given chickweed’s purported nutritive value, it’s actually strange to me to call it a “substitute” for anything. It would be more appropriate to call spinach a substitute for chickweed.
How beneficial is chickweed nutritionally? It’s hard to say. To my knowledge, there hasn’t been any official research conducted.
Several sources say it’s high in vitamins C, B, and A, as well as a host of minerals and other healthful constituents. I contacted a few of those sources looking for more info but I haven’t located any credible evidence or study.
We do know that chickweed was used traditionally as a restorative tonic for patients recuperating from serious illness. It’s presumably the plant’s nutrient content that provides healing support.
Chickweed actually has several traditional uses both internally and externally:
- Anti-inflammatory and pain reliever
It’s a traditional remedy for rheumatism, arthritis, menstrual cramps and other issues associated with inflammation.
- Digestive and intestinal support
Chickweed’s high fiber content and its reputation for improving the absorption of nutrients makes it an old stand-by tonic for gut health.
- Skin treatment
Chickweed is cooling and drying so it has a long history of use in treating skin afflictions like acne, eczema, psoriasis, rashes, minor burns, boils, cuts, and insect bites. It’s also good as a compress for soothing hemorrhoids and varicose veins.
- Kidney support
As a mild diuretic, chickweed tea is traditionally administered to flush and clean the kidneys.
A compress, tincture, or fresh juice of chickweed is used to draw out splinters.
Habitat and Harvest:
Chickweed is a common yard weed--it’s considered a pest by some so be sure not to gather it in areas that have been sprayed with pesticide.
To harvest, simply cut the stems with scissors--cut either the tops or the base depending on how much you need and how much is available. For larger, leggy plants, you may want to use only the leaves. Be sure to remove any yellow or brown leaves.
Preparation and Storage:
Chickweed doesn’t do well refrigerated which probably explains the fact that it never made it as a commercial crop, even though it was a popular edible garden plant in the 1800s. It’s best eaten fresh so plan to use it within a day or so of cutting. Eat the stems, leaves, flowers, and seed pods.
Since chickweed is so prolific, it’s really easy to get enough for a meal or 10 in a short time.
It’s excellent eaten raw; put it in a salad or prepare as you would spinach: steamed or sauteed.
See Steve Brill's tips for preparing chickweed:
I've been harvesting Indian (aka Miners') lettuce and carefully removing the intergrowing chickweed. I'm about to harvest today's lettuce and, thanks to this information, will be able to sit down sooner to a yet more delicious meal. I'm happy to have found this site.
As a child, we harvested chickweed for our canaries and parakeets! I had no idea of the historical background on this plant.
Thanks so much! I'll be using some of this in a recipe for herb-filled Armenian flatbread.
I saw chickweed as an ingredient in my tea. I had no idea it provided such nutritional value, especially fiber! Thank you for this information :)
I found a study on the nutritional stats of chickweed, as well as a few other urban "weeds". If you reference table 7 in this document, you will find it. I do recommend reading the whole thing though :) It looks as though chickweed is quite the nutritional powerhouse!
That's an awesome find, Justus...thanks so much for sharing! I'm going to read through it and update the article.
Wow! I had no idea. What a wonderful plant. So happy we don’t destroy any weeds except the stickers which are a real pain. Thank you for the great info.
I never would have known about chickweed if my hens hadn't gone crazy over it today as I was weeding my flower bed- gobbling it up as I pulled it up. I think they knew a good thing when they saw It! Thanks, Steve for explaining the health benefits.
WOW are we covered up with Chickweed in our garden. We use wood chip mulch and it seems to love it. We are located in NE TN in the mountains and it grows huge like everything else around here. Our Opium Lettuce grows to 18-20 foot tall and is great for pain relief. Normally it grows to 6' at best elsewhere. I dry the leaves and smoke it in a pipe or add it to salads. I love to tell folks that we live in a wild salad bowl here. Thanks for a great article as we have just discovered what we have here and we need all the help we can get.
Wow, 20 feet tall?! That's awesome! I've read about opium lettuce being a great pain reliever but never actually tried it for that purpose. Sounds like great place to live for foraging! It's amazing how much stuff is out there right in front of us waiting to be discovered. Glad the article helped and thanks for the comment!
I was always pulling Chickweed up and throwing it away because an old farmer once told me it was a weed that kept getting in her flower garden and it will overrun everything. This year however, I didn't and my new puppy keeps eatting it. I thought I better find out if it could hurt him. Seems he's smarter than me. I will be harvesting this from now on instead of throwing it away! Thanks for a great article!