Chickweed

Mary Anna AndersonFebruary Weed- Chickweed

Mary Anna Anderson, University of Nebraska Extension, shares information on a weed that may be cause for concern each month.

Weed - Stellaria media (Caryophyllaceae- Pink Family). Common names include common chickweed, starweed, starwort, and snow-in-the-summer.

Description: Chickweed is low growing and can form mats. The stems can lay flat or grow upward. Chickweed stems can be green or reddish and have a line of fine hairs on the upper part of the plant. The lower stem is smooth. The line of hairs alternates between nodes. The leaves are opposite, the upper leaves are sessile, and the lower leaves have petioles. Leaves have smooth edges. Sepals on flowers are about 1/8" long, sharply pointed to somewhat blunt-tipped, hairy, and more or less glandular. Petals are deeply divided into narrow white lobes shorter than the sepals.

Common Chickweed in flower, photo from Virginia TechFlowers: Flowers are tiny with 5 deeply divided petals that appear to be 10 white petals. Flowers are produced in open clusters at the end of the stem. Flowering begins in March and can continue through October.

Similar plants: Mouse ear chickweed (Cerastium vulgatum), Scarlet pimpernel (Anagallis arvensis), Sticky chickweed (Cerastium glomeratum).

Where: Yards, turf, gardens, landscaped areas, agronomic and vegetable crop fields, orchards, vineyards, grasslands, managed forests, nurseries, roadsides, and other disturbed places. Although it tolerates a wide range of conditions, common chickweed does best in moist sites.

Propagation: Each plant can produce 15,000 seeds that are 1/25 of an inch long, and have a warty coat. Seeds can last several years in the soil. They will also root at the nodes.

Poisoning: The potential for poisoning is low. Eating huge amounts can cause an accumulation of nitrates. Eating excess chickweed can cause diarrhea and vomiting. The non-profit research organization Plants for a Future (PFAF) says that common chickweed contains saponins. "Although toxic, these substances are very poorly absorbed by the body and so tend to pass through without causing harm. They are also broken down by thorough cooking. Saponins are found in many plants, including several that are often used for food, such as certain beans. It is advisable not to eat large quantities of food that contain saponins. Saponins are much more toxic to some creatures, such as fish, and hunting tribes have traditionally put large quantities of them in streams, lakes, etc. in order to stupefy or kill the fish. Report of paralysis attributed to excessive intake. Should not be used during pregnancy or during breastfeeding."

Historical: Chickweed is a native of Europe and has naturalized all over Europe and the United States.

Common chickweed vegetationWhat: It is a winter annual, but can germinate through the growing season. Although chickweed is considered a major yard weed, you might appreciate the plant after learning all the uses people have found for the plant.

Cons:  When tossed out of the garden, one uprooted plant will continue to mature and produce seeds. That means you must be careful where you grow it and where you throw it. It is said that chickweed can re-root if placed back on the soil. Chickweed is invasive.

Pros: Common chickweed has many herbal uses and uses in salads and foods. Many songbirds eat the leaves and flowers. The larvae of some butterflies and moths will eat common chickweed. The seed contains 17.8% protein and 5.9% fat. Cottontail rabbits and hogs eat the foliage. According to the Illinois Wildflower website, "The nectar and pollen of the flowers attract Andrenid bees, halictid bees, and various kinds of flies, including Syrphid flies, Muscid flies, Flesh flies, and Anthomyiid flies. In the absence of such visitors, the flowers can self-pollinate." 

Herbal: University-based research on this plant's uses is minimal, but many people and organizations have done a great deal of experimenting with the plant. There are many, many websites promoting common chickweed as having lots of herbal uses and with as part of a meal or snack. So you if you are interested, you may want to do your own searches- using the botanical name. Just be cautious and question how well research-based the information is.

Although it may be shorter to list what chickweed doesn't do, here are some of the claims for its use: soothe severe itchiness even where all other remedies have failed; as a poultice it will relieve any kind of roseola; infusion of the fresh or dried herb can be added to the bath water and its emollient property will help to reduce inflammation in rheumatic joints; used as a tonic, an astringent, diuretic, demulcent, expectorant, and mildly laxative, carminative, demulcent, expectorant, laxative, refrigerant(?). It's often recommended for asthma, bronchitis, or congestion. It's said to help control obesity and is an ingredient in some herbal weight loss preparations. Externally, it is supposed to relieve itching and inflammation and considered soothing and moisturizing. Supposedly it can be used for any minor skin infections or irritations, and is an ingredient in a number of commercial skin care products. Added to salads, the cooked leaves are said to be hard to distinguish from spring spinach. The seed can be ground into a powder and used in making bread or to thicken soups. The leaves and stems are added to salads, or added to anything where greens are used. Some reports say it can be fed companion animals to assist in the expulsion of hair balls, and sooth the digestive tract. Apparently, common chickweed is a versatile plant!