You may have been weeding chickweed from your garden lately. It is a common cool-season weed and is abundant right now. Removing this plant is like pulling out a patch of lettuce or spinach. Chickweed (Stellaria media) is tasty and nutritious. It is also easy to identify, making it safe for beginner foragers.
Chickweed is delicious and milder than other weedy greens. Its delicate flowers, leaves and stems are all edible. I like it fresh, as a simple salad green. Egg and chickweed sandwiches are especially good. It can also be cooked in the same way as spinach: in frittatas, omelettes, stir-fries, or sauteed with a little butter.
Chickweed can also be used to make a healthy herbal tea. Infuse a couple of fresh sprigs in hot water for at least 15 minutes.
The health benefits assigned to chickweed are numerous.It is used in Chinese medicine and also as a herbal remedy, mainly for the treatment of dermatitis, eczema and other dry or itchy skin conditions. It also contains anti-inflammatory and antiviral compounds.
Keen to test the ability of chickweed to sooth dry and itchy skin, I made a batch of infused oil of chickweed using a recipe from Hunter Valley herbalist Pat Collins's book Useful Weeds at Our Doorstep. I simmered chopped chickweed with an equal weight of olive oil until only a few small bubbles remained. I strained the oil and bottled it. This earthy smelling oil soothed a friend's eczema and an itchy rash our pony had suffered from for months.
The "prepper" or "survivalist" in me likes collecting bits of information that I hopefully never need to use. Like, if I am ever stuck in the wild without antiseptic, crushed chickweed leaves can be used to clean cuts or burns. It is also a mild diuretic and can be used to treat urinary tract infections.
When foraging, you want to avoid places that may have been sprayed with herbicide or are likely to be polluted. A vegetable garden is an ideal place to forage chickweed. Avoid busy road verges and areas surrounding old painted buildings because they are likely to be contaminated with lead and other heavy metals.
Identifying chickweed is easy once you know what to look for. It has small white flowers. Each flower has five petals that are deeply lobed, which makes the flowers appear as though they have 10 petals. The stems also have a single row of hairs, which distinguish it from its many lookalikes. The hairs are very small, so you will need to hold a stem up to the light and look closely to see them.
Chickweed may be confused with petty spurge (Euphorbia peplus) or scarlet pimpernel (Anagallis arvensis). Petty spurge is easy to distinguish by its milky sap. Scarlet pimpernel can be distinguished by its orange, pink or blue flowers.
If you are new to foraging chickweed, it may be best to pick it only when you can see its characteristic small white lobed flowers.
To harvest chickweed, grab a handful and snip off the top 10-20 centimetres of stem with a pair of scissors. Rinse.
It's nearing the end of its season here in Australia. So if you are keen to try this neglected, tasty free food, you'll need to be quick.
Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 11th August 2014.