Chickweed is one of the plants I ask my apprentices to look for in February. There are frequent complaints this herb cannot be found so early in the year but for me, the sight of chickweed appearing at the base of a tree growing by a busy hospital or over-wintering in my vegetable beds is a sign Spring really is around the corner.
Chickweed, stellaria media, is a small green plant with a white star-shaped flower (hence it’s latin name and common name of starweed) and oval green leaves which grows profusely on disturbed soil. Historically it was fed to chickens and other caged birds and is constantly thrown away by the barrowload by diligent gardeners who have no idea of its many properties. It has a long growing season, appearing in early February or March and continuing to grow until November. I have had it grow almost year round in my garden, even surviving snow and ice.
Chickweed is not only good feed for poultry and other birds; it is full of vitamin C and rich in minerals and trace elements, notably iron, magnesium, manganese, silicon and zinc. The whole aerial plant, well shaken and washed free of soil can be eaten fresh, in salads or lightly stir fried. If cooked for too long it can become chewy and young growth picked before flowering is preferable to older shoots, which tend to lodge between your teeth after you’ve finished chewing. It’s a useful addition to homemade smoothies and pesto.
Chickweed is a herb best used fresh. It juices well, either by putting the plant material through a juicer or by pounding in a pestle and mortar with a small amount of water. The juice can be used for sore and irritable eyes up to six times a day or as a skin lotion for itchy and inflamed skin. It can also be rubbed on nettle stings or mosquito bites. The juice can be frozen in ice cube trays to be used when required.
One of chickweed’s best known properties is anti-itching. It can still be found amongst the list of ingredients in pharmaceutical preparations sold for insect bites, eczema and to soothe chickenpox scabs.
Chickweed oil was my first herbal preparation which gave instant and consistent success. I gave it to grandchildren of the local cowman, both of whom suffered with dreadful eczema. The oil was placed in the children’s bath before travelling home and they reported their first ever peaceful and stress free journey. Their mother subsequently rang me to ask if she could buy some more oil but I suggested she make her own and explained what she needed to do.
Chickweed makes a soothing bath oil which leaves the skin silky smooth or it can be made into a salve for ease of application. Zoe Hawes recommends leaving the fresh herb to wilt overnight before using the double infused hot method to make the oil. It’s useful with eczema, psoriasis, chicken pox and shingles and combines well with chamomile and plantain for any kind of skin rash. You can also combine it with nettle and meadowsweet for rheumatic conditions. Chickweed and calendula make a good preventative salve if your children are prone to eczema.
Chickweed can be used internally as a tea, juice or fresh herb tincture as well as externally when treating hot, irritated skins conditions. It also helps to eliminate toxins via the urinary system and by gently stimulating bowel function. A chickweed juice tea can be made by pouring one tablespoon of juice into one cup of just boiled water. This can be drunk immediately. If you are making an infusion from the fresh or dried plant material, it should be left to infuse for ten minutes, covered, before drinking.
Chickweed, like plantain, has drawing properties. The fresh plant material can be bruised and applied in poultice form to draw out toxins from boils and abscesses. The poultice should be replaced every few hours. The wilted or freshly dry herb can be made into an infusion with just boiled water to cleanse skin diseases and rheumatic conditions.
Henriette Kress uses a teaspoon of chickweed syrup three times a day for a productive cough. The syrup is made by mixing half a cup (100ml) of juiced chickweed with half a cup (110g) sugar.
Contraindications for chickweed
Chickweed should not be taken if you suffer with stomach or intestinal irritation or bleeding as the herb can make this condition worse. There is also the possibility that chickweed may contain nitrates, so should not be given to children under the age of one year.
Hawes, Z Wild Drugs, a forager's guide to healing plants Octopus Publishing Ltd 2010
Kress, H Practical Herbs 2011