How to Identify Chickweed - Foraging for Wild Edible Greens
You may not realize it, but if you’ve ever spent more than a minute or two staring at the ground in late winter and spring, you’re probably familiar with chickweed (Stellaria media).
Common chickweed, also known as winter weed, is one of the most ubiquitous “weedy” plants in North America. That’s good news for us foragers because it’s also a very tasty—and very nutritious—wild food that grows abundantly at a time of year when little else is thriving.
Chickweed isn’t native to North America – it came over with European settlers and quickly carpeted the countryside with its dense, sprawling thickets. It is the bane of many a gardener for its ability to quickly and mercilessly dominate a garden bed, but if those same gardeners knew that chickweed packs more vitamins and minerals per ounce than spinach or kale, they might not be so quick to exterminate it.
Where to Find Chickweed
Chickweed loves cool, damp conditions, and prefers soft, rich, recently disturbed soil. That means you’ll often find it growing prolifically around agricultural land from late winter through the spring and into the summer for most of the continent. It’s also very common in lawns. Once you know what to look for, you’ll start to notice it popping up just about everywhere.
How to Identify Chickweed
Chickweed is easy to identify for even the novice wildcrafter. It’s tender, stringy, and rarely grows more than a few inches up off the ground. Leaves are small, teardrop- to egg-shaped with a pointed tip, and grow opposite each other along the stem.
Flowers are distinctive and tiny, featuring five white petals with deep clefts that might lead you to believe they are actually ten. The flower stem and the sepals—the leaves around the base of the flower—are covered with very fine hairs.
One unique defining characteristic of chickweed is what forager and author John Kallas describes as a “Mohawk”—a single line of hairs—running along the length of each stem. This is a pretty unusual trait for a plant, which makes it a great way to differentiate common chickweed from mouse-ear chickweed, its edible cousin, and scarlet pimpernel, the poisonous lookalike.
The difference between mouse-ear and common chickweed is pretty obvious: the mouse-eared variety is covered with fine hairs on its stems and leaves. It’s perfectly safe to eat, but all of those hairs makes it a less pleasant experience.
The poisonous scarlet pimpernel doesn’t always stand out at first glance, but it is crucial to exercise caution here because it is sometimes found growing among chickweed. Scarlet pimpernel’s stems are square, it lacks the “Mohawk” stem hairs of common chickweed, and the undersides of its leaves generally have a splotchy reddish hue. Its flowers are red, rather than white.
When to Look for Chickweed
Chickweed will sprout anytime that the temperature is sitting between roughly 35 and 75 degrees F, and while it can tolerate temperatures down into the teens, it really takes off when the average temperature rises up into the 40s. It will die off in high summer when/if the temperature hits the 90s, but rest assured that it’ll return in the fall when the climate mellows out once more.
Here in Kentucky (Zone 6), chickweed tends to come out of hiding in November and December as its competition dies off or goes dormant for the season. By late January and early February there’s more than enough big (relatively speaking) and healthy patches to harvest from. Bigger, stronger species will eventually crowd it out as the summer approaches and conditions become less favorable.
How to Harvest Chickweed
Chickweed has two somewhat distinct growing habits, depending on where you find it. When you come across a solo plant you’ll notice that its stems bend over and sprawl out across the ground; when growing in a dense patch, the community reaches a critical mass that allows the plants to hold each other up and stand upright.
Both are equally edible, of course, but the dense, upright cluster is much easier to harvest from. Every aboveground part of the chickweed—stem, leaf, bud, and flower—is edible, but you will want to be somewhat selective in harvesting because only the top inch or two of the stem is ideal for eating. Below that, the stem becomes too stringy and fibrous for most people’s palettes (my wife Brooke couldn’t care less).
A pair of scissors is really all you need for a clean and easy harvest. Don’t pull the plants out of the ground if you can avoid it – you’ll end up scrapping a lot of plant material, and you’ll probably have to wash the whole lot if you throw dirty roots in with the rest. Besides, don’t you want to save some for another time?
As with all foraged foods—but especially ground covers like chickweed—you should only harvest from places where you’re sure the soil hasn’t been contaminated with herbicides and pesticides. That can be tricky sometimes in our toxic modern era, but rest assured that there’s plenty of clean chickweed to be found out there.
How to Use Chickweed
The simple answer: just eat it! As a tender green, chickweed is wonderful for raw snacking and also makes a great addition to a salad. It’s a great source of vitamin C, calcium, magnesium, and potassium.
Chickweed doesn’t keep especially well, so you’re best off eating it as soon as possible after harvesting. It can be dried for later use as well.
Whether fresh or dry, chickweed has a long history of medicinal use as an herbal tea. It was traditionally used as a weight loss remedy, probably for its diuretic properties – so consume in moderation! It is also said to help with inflammation.
To make chickweed tea, simply steep about 2-3 tablespoons in one cup of boiling water for 5 minutes, then strain out the chickweed and serve.
I love teaching people about chickweed because it’s so simple to identify, harvest, and eat. I hope that this post encourages you to forage for some chickweed yourself – and maybe it’ll inspire you to go out searching for other wild foods in your area!
Diving into the wonderful world of wild foods can be intimidating, especially if you don't have much experience working with plants.
That's why I wrote Introduction to Foraging: A Beginner's Guide to Gathering Wild Foods with Confidence - available now for just $6.
The book was written with the absolute beginner in mind, and with the goal of getting you out into the world gathering wild foods right away.
Introduction to Foraging goes into much greater detail on chickweed, garlic mustard, bittercress, and field garlic, as well as several other wild plants that are very common and very easy to identify.
To learn everything you need to know to begin foraging safely, sustainably, and confidently, check out my book here. Happy hunting!
By the way...
If you're looking for more help with wild plant identification, and you're wondering how to tie foraging into your local, seasonal diet, why not join us over in the Farm and Forage Challenge group on Facebook? You'll be able to connect with folks just like you and me all over the world who are eating seasonally from the landscapes that surround them. I hope to see you there!