Weeds That Heal: Chickweed

Chickweed FlowersBy Jill Henderson – Show Me Oz

There was a time, not so long ago, when almost every woman in charge of a household sought out the wild plants that we generally refer to as weeds.  Rich in vitamins and minerals , many of these plants were welcomed to the table as nutritive spring potherbs.   Others would be gathered and made into healing teas, tonics, infusions, poultices and salves that could be used treat many types of injuries or illnesses.  One of the earliest and most versatile weeds that homesteaders and healers gathered in early spring was the lowly and much maligned chickweed.

Common chickweed (Stellaria media) is well-known around the world as both an edible and medicinal plant.  It has many commons names, some of which include Starweed, Chickenwort, Craches and Winterweed.   Those familiar with garden plants might recognize that the flowers of chickweed resemble those of pinks or carnations.  Indeed, this low-growing herbaceous herb belongs to the Caryophyllaceae family of plants that both pinks and carnations belong to.

Often considered a nuisance, chickweed is nothing if not prolific.  Each year, this annual plant produces hundreds of tiny seeds that can persist in the soil for years.  And if the name doesn’t give it away, let it be known that chickens do indeed love this tender green.

Chickweed grows in sprawling dense mats.  Leaves are tiny, ovate to broadly lance-shaped with a distinct point at the tip and grow opposite along the stems.  The lower leaves of chickweed are petiolate (having a leaf stem), while the upper leaves are sessile (no stem and clasping).  The tiny white flowers emerge from leaf axils and branch tips and consist of five two-part petals that to the untrained eye appear to be 10 separate petals.

If you have ever tried to eradicate chickweed, you already know how brittle and weak their stems are, but did you ever notice that they are slightly angular and have a line of fine hairs that run up only one side?  This is a sure-fire way to positively identify chickweed in the field, where you can find it just about anywhere moisture is present.  But don’t let chickweed ruin your day in the garden trying to pull it all out.  For while it is both aggressive and invasive, chickweed very short-lived and has a shallow root system, which almost completely reduces its competitiveness with other plants.

As an edible, chickweed is high in iron, potassium and other minerals and contains  vitamins A, D, B and C.   While many people find it to be an enjoyable edible used fresh on salads, sandwiches and the like, some find the flavor bitter or “soapy”.  The latter is due to saponins present in the leaves and stems.  In large quantities (as in pounds or kilos), saponins are slightly toxic to humans, with the most notable side effect being nausea and diarrhea.

As a medicinal, chickweed is generally considered a safe and reliable emollient, demulcent, refrigerant, and diuretic.  It is often used as an external demulcent to reduce swelling.  Internally, chickweed is diuretic and in very large amounts it is a laxative (again, due to the saponins).   Oil of chickweed relieves itching and skin irritations.  Poultices cool and soothe minor burns and skin irritations, especially itchy, dry skin. Popular in salves and ointments.

Chickweed is well-known for its healing drawing properties and if primarily used for skin disorders, including:

burns itching
cold sores minor infections
cuts poison ivy
diaper rash psoriasis
eczema rashes and hives
fungal infections sore throat
insect bites and stings stinging or burning skin

To use, gather the aerial portions of chickweed. If growing in or very near water allow the herb to dry completely or dunk in a very dilute bleach and water wash before consuming to avoid giardia or E. coli and other water-borne diseases.  Collect only in clean pollution and herbicide-free environments.

Chickweed can be used fresh as a poultice for burns, bites, stings and rashes.  It can also be tinctured fresh using the 1:2 ratio in 95% alcohol.  Most herbalists prefer to wilt or dry the herb prior to tincturing, which will change the above ratio.  To learn more about how to work with healing herbs, check out my book, The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs: Growing and Using Nature’s Remedies and the following two-part series:

Making Herbal Tinctures: Part I
Making Herbal Tinctures: Part II

A cold oil infusion of chickweed is a quick and effective topical for rashes and other skin irritations.  Be sure to wilt the herb on paper towels for up to two days – or dry it completely – to remove excess moisture before infusing in oil.   This “oil of chickweed” can be used to prepare emulsified topicals such as lotions, creams and salves.  Its healing and soothing actions can be intensified by blending it with other healing herbs such as plantain, mint, lemon balm, rosemary, eucalyptus, lavender and comfrey.

So the next time you step out and feel like cursing that mat of chickweed in your garden – embrace it, instead.  You will discover an amazingly healthful and healing herb that grows in abundance and needs no weeding!

Happy hunting!

© 2013 Jill Henderson

THPOKH-214x32115Learn more about medicinal herbs with
The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs

The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs is a no-nonsense guide jam-packed with no-nonsense information on growing, harvesting and using 35 of the world’s safest and most flavorful herbs. In addition to the 35 detailed herbal monographs are entire chapters on growing, harvesting and using kitchen herbs to spice up your favorite dish or create healing herbal remedies. This is one book you will turn to time and time again!

Available in the Show Me Oz Bookstore

Jill Henderson is an artist, author, and the editor of Show Me Oz . Her books, The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, The Garden Seed Saving Guide and A Journey of Seasons can be found in the Show Me Oz Bookstore.  Jill’s work has also appeared in The Permaculture Activist, The Essential Herbal, Acres USA, and Llewellyn’s Herbal Almanac.

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6 responses to “Weeds That Heal: Chickweed

  1. Well, Jill, now you have happened into my primary interest: Herbalism. Very good job on this blog, as with all the others!

    • Thanks, Di. There are quite a few plant profiles and articles on herbalism scattered throughout the blog. Most are categorized under Healthwise or Wild Walk, though there are other gems hidden elsewhere! Have fun searching! LOL

  2. Very interesting, I just found your blog and love it! I very much enjoyed some older articles about native bamboos. The chickweed is quite interesting to me, as my patio flower pots, and small lawn are full of it! This is mostly due to my using a years-old leaf compost pile, which I found in the woods behind my rented cottage, for planting my potted plants and amending the soil in some small flower beds with it. The soil here was rock hard before I started that, as previous tenants evidently weren’t plant lovers. The chickweed, as well as other native plants have sprouted in the compost, and i thiink it is quite lovely as a ground cover, and I figured would help insulate the roots of my potted plants which I left out over the winter. I had no idea of its many uses, though. I’m interested to follow your suggestions for using it as food and medicinally.
    Really great site, and I’m so glad I found it!

    • I’m glad you found the site, as well and welcome your comments! I think your concept of using chickweed for a groundcover and green mulch is fantastic. If you have it, you may as well enjoy it in any way you can! The chickweed in my yard likely came from a large pile of manure/compost mix that the previous owner had brought in to build planting beds with. Now it’s everywhere. I, too, enjoy it as a groundcover – especially in the rocky driveway and adjacent disturbed areas where it helps build and hold soil and prevent erosion on our steep hillside. Over time, the grasses and more aggressive weeds will drive the chickweed out, but I am certain that patches of it will persist for years to come!

  3. Pingback: Granny Women and Biopiracy | Show Me Oz

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