Fields, Forests & Wetlands Foods of Eastern North America
A Complete Wild Food Guide
Urban, Rural or Both: Both
Chickweed (Stellaria media) synonym: (Alsine media). Known also as, Starweed, Starwort, Winterweed, Bindweed, Satin Flower, Tongue-grass. Be careful with the Bindweed name, this is also the common name of a completely different family of plants - the Morning Glory family. Some of those are poisonous, some all well known for their showy flowers, some are known for their hallucinogenic seeds, some produce food, like the well known Sweet Potato.
This good tasting (especially cooked) green can be used raw or cooked. Best in spring, and if you use it raw, don't eat large quantities as Chickweed contains chemicals called Saponins. Most Saponins are not absorbed, but better to be safe. Small amounts are fine. Cooking destroys the Saponins, so then you can eat much larger amounts. There are other plants I prefer raw to snack on when out, so I don't bother with this one except now and then, but this is a great cooked green to use in almost anything.
When cooked, it does taste like cooked spinach, so my best recommendation is to use it like spinach. It is one the first greens to come out in the spring, and a really nice fresh green is much appreciated at this time of year. The stems are tender when cooked, so you don't have to pick they tiny leaves only. My preferred way to harvest it is to use scissors and take off about half the length of the stems. That way, the plant can regrow for harvesting later, and you don't have to deal with dirt. This plant does put down roots wherever a node touches the earth.
It grows in a prostrate pattern - that is, it crawls along the ground, rooting from nodes on the stem. It can be semi-erect - not right along the ground, but growing like a small bush. This is more common with younger plants, and the growing ends of stem.
It has one, very distinct identifying feature. It has a line of short hairs that run along the stem. So, most of the stem is hairless, except for a thin, straight line of hairs from node to node. And, the line of hairs switches sides at each node. Hard to mistake this for anything else. It does require a good look - I can't see this without my reading glasses, so make sure you have yours, or keep a small magnifying glass with you on your outings. Or use the trick I mentioned in the introduction - use binoculars backwards as a field microscope.
A very common "weed" in lawns and gardens - especially if there is fertilizer used (they really like nitrogen), but no pesticides.
Growing this plant in your home garden:
This plant is easy to get established by transplanting whole plants with a shovel full of undisturbed soil around it or by gathering seed and just spreading them where you want them.
- Plant Size: If growing erect (Usually prostrate), up to 15 cm (6 inches)
- Duration: Annual, Winter Annual or Perennial
- Leaf Shape: Ovate (oval) to almost round. Sometimes with a small tip, sometimes leaf end is rounded with no tip. Some leaves (usually lower) have short stalks. Some leaves (usually upper) have not stalks and leaf comes right from stem.
- Leaf Phyllotaxis (Leaf Arrangement) on branch: Decussate (Alternating Opposites. That is, they come in Opposite pairs that Alternate on the stem - if looking at the plant from above, you will have one pair at three and nine o'clock, then the next pair at twelve and six o'clock.)
- Leaf Size: 3-20 mm (under 1/8 to 4/5 inch) long. Upper, stalkless leaves can grow up to 25mm (1 inch) long, but usually less. Normal mature leaf size is about 12 mm (1/2 inch).
- Leaf Margin: Entire (smooth edged)
- Notes: Stems have vertical lines of hairs that switch sides at the nodes
- Flowers: Small white petalled flowers. Five pairs of petals.
- Habitat: Basically anywhere from gardens, disturbed areas, grassland, lawns, woods. It does prefer, partly shaded, moist soil with a high nitrogen content. A very cold tolerant plant - and heat tolerant as well.
- Recipe search on the web here (Google search) and here (Bing search).
- Pictures on the web here (Google images) and here (Bing images).
- USDA distribution map and plant profile here.
- The Biota of North America Program (BONAP) distribution map here. BONAP map color key here.
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