Chickweed is a perennial herb in the carnation family that is also known as starweed in reference to its small, star-like, white flowers. Its botanical name translates from Latin to mean “star” and “in the middle of.” As the herb’s common name implies, chickweed is a favorite foraging food for chickens.
Although chickweed is perennial, it behaves like an annual in that it persistently returns to the lawn or garden each year but not necessarily in the same place. The plant establishes itself (or tries to) as a groundcover in cultivated, cold, moist ground in spring, by either forming sprawling, dense patches or by using its hairy stems to latch onto neighboring plants for vertical support and spread. It self-propagates by re-seeding. It also migrates to other locations via wind, water and wildlife. Given the fact that each plant produces 2,500 to 15,000 seeds that remain viable even after passing through the digestive tracts of birds, deer, horses and even earthworms, its success comes as no surprise.
Sturdy & Smart
Don’t be fooled by chickweed’s small stature -- this is one tough plant. It can survive drought, wilting and appearing to shrivel up and die only to revive with the next rain. It can not only handle a little frost, but it can flower under several feet of snow. In fact, this delicate looking plant can thrive where most people can’t without a lot of help, like near the Arctic Circle.
Speaking of rain and snow… chickweed flowers “know” when it’s about to rain or snow and close. The herb is also a study in nyctinasty. More commonly referred to as the “Sleep of Plants,” nyctinasty is the movement of leaves and flowers in response to changes in light (and possibly temperature) at night. Chickweed, like other plants, has photoreceptor pigments that detect light in the red and far-red zones of the spectrum. While all plants use light receptors to “see” and move toward light, chickweed is an example of a nyctinastic plant that sort of tucks itself in at night. Its upper leaves actually move in close to each other to cover and protect newly emerging shoots below.
A Hairy History
According to the Ainu people, an indigenous tribe who once heavily populated the Japanese island of Hokkaido “a hundred thousand years before the Children of the Sun came,” the creator god, Kamui, made them the first humans to inhabit the earth. The legend says that the original Ainu (which means "human") had spines of willow, bodies of earth and hair of chickweed.
The 17th century botanist and herbalist John Gerard considered the juice of chickweed as a cure for scurvy, and the herb, together with elecampane, as a remedy for hydrophobia, an irrational fear of water that sometimes occurs as a symptom of rabies.
He also commended the anti-inflammatory qualities of the herb when he wrote, “the leaves of Chickweed boyled in water very soft, adding thereto some hog's grease, the powder of Fenugreeke and Linseed, and a few roots of Marsh Mallows, and stamped to the forme of Cataplasme or pultesse, taketh away the swelling of the legs or any other part . . . in a word it comforteth, digesteth, defendeth and suppurateth very notably.”
Healing with Chickweed, No Hog Grease Required
Chickweed has a long history of use to counter various complaints ranging from pleurisy and rheumatism to boils and gastrointestinal disorders. Taken as tea or tincture, the herb has a carminative action that eases intestinal inflammation. Applied topically, chickweed is demulcent and vulnerary, meaning it soothes inflamed membranes and speeds wound healing, respectively. The herb also has astringent properties, so it shrinks inflammations while drawing toxins out.
If you have an itch, chickweed is your remedy. This includes plain ol’ itchy dry skin, or itch caused by a rash or bug bite. Chickweed is also a time-honored remedy for inflammation affecting the eyelids, including conjunctivitis. The moist and cooling energy of the herb also soothes sunburn.
Preparations made from chickweed are simple – tea, poultice, infused oil or salve. How tea is administered is self-explanatory, the other preparations (how-to-make instructions follow) are for topical use.
Chickweed leaves, stems and flowers are edible and the flavor is fresh and green. The aliveness of the fresh herb provides energy and stimulates metabolism, which is why chickweed is an ingredient in many weight loss supplements. Use the young, tender leaves at the top of the plant in salads and sandwiches and the flowers and stems in cooking. While the leaves in particular can get a bit chewy with age, mature specimens are perfectly fine to use in medicinal formulas.
Suggestions for Use
Add fresh leaves to salads and sandwiches
Use fresh or dried flowers, stems and leaves in soups and stews
Blend fresh chickweed leaves in smoothies (works especially well with pineapple juice, apple and cucumber)
Make pesto from the fresh leaves
Sprinkle dried chickweed into sauces or over cooked pasta or rice
How to Make a Chickweed Poultice
Finely chop a handful of fresh chickweed (or pulse in blender) and mix with a tablespoon of water. Apply directly to skin or spread on a cloth or place in a muslin bag and apply that to skin. Let the herb do its work for 20-30 minutes while you relax. Repeat as often as needed.
How to Make Chickweed Oil
Infused chickweed oil may be use alone on the skin, or it can be used as the oil component when making salves and balms. To make the oil, fill a mason jar or similar container ¾ of the way with dried chickweed. Cover with a quality oil, such as sweet almond or jojoba. Place in a sunny window for 3-4 weeks, or until the oil takes on the color and character of the herb (you’ll know). Strain and transfer the reserved oil into an amber or cobalt-colored glass jar and label. Store in a cool, dark place.
How to Make Chickweed Salve
To make this salve, use ready-made chickweed-infused oil (see recipe above) OR the alternate method using the powdered herb described below. (In other words, if you've made the oil above, combine it with the grated beeswax as instructed below and heat just long enough to melt the beeswax. Stir, pour and you're done.)
1 cup sweet almond or olive oil
2 tablespoons powdered chickweed
¼ cup beeswax, grated (or use pastilles)
Gently heat the oil in the top of a double boiler. Stir in the powdered chickweed. Continue heating the oil-herb mixture for 30-60 minutes, watching carefully and stirring often. Remove from heat and pour into clean tins. Allow to cool for several hours or overnight. Cap, label and store in a cool, dark place.
Notes on Fresh vs. Dried Herb
You can use the fresh herb you’ve foraged yourself (from a pesticide-free zone, please) as long as you let the material wilt for several hours on a screen, towel or newspaper. This step is necessary to remove as much moisture as possible. Otherwise, the water content will permit fermentation (yuck, mold) to occur in your infused oils and other formulations.
If you wish, you can use fresh or dried whole herb when making salves instead of powdered herb, but you’ll have to strain it before pouring it off into tins.
When making tea or cooking with chickweed (or any herb), use twice as much fresh herb as dried because the concentration of volatile oils is higher in the latter.