Friday, April 17, 2015

Delicate and delicious, lush green colonies of Stellaria media ("among little stars") can still be found throughout Vancouver. Here's an introduction to this wonderful little "weed"...

ID: Chickweed has teardrop shaped leaves with pointed tips and little white flowers. The flowers appear to have ten petals but upon closer examination they are actually five very deeply cleft petals... little stars. Its stems are densely branched. If growing alone, it spreads out close to the ground; if growing among other chickweed plants, they support each other enough to appear upright.  

Chickweed has two defining characteristics: The first is if you carefully break a stem apart, you will reveal an elastic inner core (remind me to update with a photo of this). The second is that the plant is hairless, save for a single line of hairs travelling down each stem. This line of hairs changes position between each leaf node.

LOOK-ALIKES: Mouse-Eared Chickweed looks very similar, except it's hairy all over. You can eat this one too, but probably want to cook it first .

Scarlet Pimpernel is considered poisonous and looks and grows just like Chickweed except it has: a square stem, no hair, dark spots on underside of leaves and reddish flowers. Also, if you perform the elastic inner core test, this plant will fail. I have yet to encounter Ms. Pimpernel in Vancouver.

FIND IT: Chickweed loves the cool moisture of late winter. It has a great flush around this time in Vancouver, and dense colonies seem to sprout up out of nowhere. You can still find it a bit later in the season in fertile well drained soil if the area is moist and somewhat shaded, but many exposed patches will have yellowed and dried up by this time. But not to worry, there will be another flush with the cool rain of autumn. I've still been finding nice patches at the base of large trees in parks and boulevards around the city.

HARVEST & PROCESS: Snip off the top 1 to 2 inches of the plant; any further down and it may get a bit too stringy to enjoy. I always do a little taste on site test for characteristics like bitterness (chickweed isn't bitter) and stringiness. 

At home, wash in a sink-full of cold water  

and pick out the inevitable bits of grass and other plants.
This can also be an opportunity to check for lookalikes in your harvest. Although this process may seem tedious, it can actually be quite meditative, and you'll really get to know these little starry plants as you sort through them, which will help you find them in future.

FOOD: Chickweed is full of vitamins and minerals, all of which I am not going to list here this time around. It's mild tasting and makes a great base for salads. It can also be used on sandwiches or anywhere you would use sprouts. It can be made into pesto, and also cooked into dishes (add just a couple minutes before turning off the heat). Some people liken its taste to corn silk.

Chickweed (and some dandelion) ready for our salad tonight:

MEDICINE:  If you associate chickweed with cool, starry nights (the star-shaped flowers), you will easily remember when to use it. It grows in cool, moist conditions, and passes these qualities to us - helping with hot, dry inflammation and irritation (especially itchy skin conditions) Poultices, salves and teas are some easy ways to use Chickweed.

As if food and medicine weren't enough reason to encourage a patch of chickweed in your garden, it is one of the most important forage plants for birds (it's called chickweed, after all), and a nitrogen fixer to boot!

I will be hosting workshops in Vancouver featuring Chick and other Weeds in the next month. Details will follow...

Some references:

Don Ollsin - (my herbal teacher, check him out!)Pathways to Healing, A Guide to Herbs, Ayurveda, Dreambody and Shamanism by Don Ollsin
Healing Wise by Susun Weed
Edible Wild Plants by John Kallas