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GardenSMART :: Chickweed is a Stubborn Weed and an Edible Green

Chickweed is a Stubborn Weed and an Edible Green

By Yuvraj Khamare, Graduate Research Assistant,
Environmental Horticulture, University of Florida
Photographs courtesy of Yuvraj Khamare

 

Chickweed is both a scourge and a blessing. For some gardeners it is an annoying, difficult-to-remove weed, while others favor it as a nutritious wild edible.

A winter annual in the carnation family, common chickweed is native to Europe but has spread all over the world, and is now common in North America. It thrives in cool, moist, shaded areas and grows easily in gardens, backyards and shady lawns.

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The scientific name, Stellaria media, means "little star in the mist," a nod to its tiny, star-shaped flowers. Caged birds, especially young chickens, are fond of the plants, hence the name chickweed. Other common names include winterweed and chickenwort.

Seedlings are light or bright green, and the oval leaves are in pairs. The mature plants will form a clumping mound in a vibrant chartreuse color, eventually speckled with small white blooms. Perhaps the most interesting feature of chickweed is its ability to act as a barometer by folding up its leaves when rain is coming.

Chickweed has long been used as a forage plant and vegetable by Europeans and early settlers.* All parts of the plant are edible, from the leaves to the stems and flowers. It is nutritious and rich in ascorbic acid, beta-carotene, calcium, magnesium, niacin, potassium and riboflavin. The leaves are edible raw or cooked, lending a familiar spinach flavor to everything from pesto to salads to stir-fries. Chickweed is now starting to show up in herbal supplements, teas, and at farmers markets.

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Chickweed also has medicinal uses. In traditional medicine it was used to treat bronchitis, asthma, and indigestion, and as a natural appetite suppressant. It has anti-inflammatory, antiseptic and antifungal properties, which were used to treat skin problems like boils, rashes, eczema, insect bites and wounds.

If you find chickweed a nuisance in your garden, keep in mind that prevention and cultural removal methods are safe and cost-effective. Home gardeners should rely on nonchemical techniques like hand weeding, using organic mulch or turning the soil. Weeds can also be controlled by thermal devices like flame, steam, or hot foam weeders. Hand weeding is often the most efficient method of removal.

Keep an eye on this fast-growing plant as it goes to seed quickly. It is vital to remove plants from the garden to prevent seeds from developing and accumulating in the soil, which creates a seed bank.

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Turning the soil over can be useful as seed germination decreases the deeper the seed is buried in the soil. Adding a layer of organic mulch such as pine bark, pine straw or shredded hardwood mulch will limit the light for germination and serve as a physical barrier.

It is only practical to use herbicides if nonchemical options are difficult to perform in the site or in cases of a widespread infestation. Several natural chemical treatments are also available, including vinegar (acetic acid) along with a mix of one or more natural oils such as clove, oregano, or citrus.

If you identify chickweed in your garden, keep in mind its potential uses but also take the preventative measures to keep the plant from becoming a widespread nuisance.

*Like any forage plant, chickweed should be eaten in moderation. Be sure not to gather it in areas that have been sprayed with pesticides. Before consuming the weed, verify identification with your cooperative extension office or local foraging experts. Before using the weed medicinally, consult reliable medical sources.

 


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