By Laura Killingbeck
Identification and Harvest
Chickweed grows wild throughout the United States and is very common in Massachusetts.
It grows in sun or partial shade, and loves damp soil. It can tolerate low mowing and thrives in disturbed soils, so it’s very common in lawns or gardens.
Chickweed is one of the first wild edibles that poke up in the early spring in Massachusetts. As the weather gets warmer in summer, they set seed and die back down again.
To harvest, cut the chickweed with scissors or a knife. For plants with particularly long stems, the tender tips and leaves will be most palatable. All parts of the plant above the ground are edible.
Chickweed grows in mats which extend outward from a central root system. The stems can sprawl along the ground or grow somewhat upward, depending on space and light.
Leaves are simple, opposite, and shaped like tear drops. The flowers are small, white, and have five petals. Each petal is split down the center so they appear to have ten petals instead of five.
Chickweed has a single line of fine hair down the side of the stem, which people sometimes refer to as its “mohawk”. The unopened flower buds are also somewhat hairy. Chickweed does not have milky sap when the stem is broken.
When identifying chickweed, always check the stem—it must have a line of hair, and it must not have milky sap when broken. Scarlet Pimpernel is a toxic plant that looks similar to chickweed; however, this plant has a hairless stem. Spurge is another plant that can sometimes be confused with chickweed; however, this plant has milky sap. If you remember these two characteristics, you should not have a problem identifying chickweed.
There is one more plant that looks very similar to chickweed, but this plant is also edible—it’s called Mouse Ear Chickweed, or Cerastium fontanum. This plant looks very similar to Common Chickweed, but can be distinguished by the presence of fine hairs all along its stems and leaves. For this reason, most people consider Common Chickweed to be more palatable in texture.
Medicinal and Culinary Uses
Chickweed has tender leaves and a somewhat stringy stem. You can eat it raw in sandwiches or wraps, chopped into salads, or cooked like spinach. I sometimes dehydrate and powder it to add to baked goods and homemade pasta. The flavor of chickweed reminds me of fresh sprouts.
Chickweed stores for about a week in refrigeration, but most people prefer to eat it fresh, cook it up, or dehydrate it for later. Dehydrated chickweed lasts for about a year.
Chickweed is used internally and externally as a medicine. It can be made into a poultice or salve to treat inflammation, itchiness, eczema, or abscesses. It is used internally as a diuretic, to support digestion, and to recover from respiratory illness like the common cold. Like many wild edible plants, chickweed is high in a variety of vitamins, including vitamin C.
The following are two great recipes adapted from the wonderful book, Wild Flavors by Didi Emmons. Wild Flavors profiles the plants grown at our neighbor Eva’s farm (Eva’s Garden). Eva is a passionate advocate of the flavor and nutritional value of chickweed, which she always refers to by its Latin name, Stellaria.
Helps to reduce swelling in the throat.
6 cups loosely packed chickweed
1 bunch thyme (optional)
4-5 sprigs rosemary
4-inch piece ginger root, thinly sliced
1 lemon, cut into 6 slices
Combine all ingredients in a pot with eight cups of water. Bring to a boil, then cover. Remove from heat and let steep for 30 minutes. Strain and serve.
Chickweed Cheddar Grilled Cheese Sandwiches
This is a serious winner.
1 tbs butter
2 slices whole wheat bread
2 ounces cheddar cheese
½ tart apple, with peel, thinly sliced
1 handful chickweed
- Melt the butter in a heavy-bottomed cast-iron pan over low heat. Set both slices of bread in the pan. Layer the cheese on one slice of bread, and set the apple slices in the empty spaces in the pan. Let the apples cook and the bread toast.
- After a few minutes, set the warm apples on the cheese. Set the plain slice of bread on top of the apples. Flip the sandwich and cook until the underside is browned, about three minutes. Then pry open the bread and add the fresh chickweed. Serve warm.