What if I told you about an easy-care groundcover that integrates plants beautifully in containers and in the ground in early spring, then dies off to leave space for warm-weather annuals? What it I also added that it’s a plant long treasured by herbalists for its nutritious, healing qualities?
Then what if I told you it was chickweed?
Familiarity breeds contempt, and this European plant from the pink family has made itself at home worldwide, in every kind of climate. I have never planted chickweed, and I have never needed to. Chickweed can produce five generations in a season, and its tiny little star-flowers make lots of seeds.
To some, this means it is simply an invasive pest, to be rooted out. To me, it just goes to prove that maxim, “a weed is a plant that’s in the wrong place.” While others place it squarely in the pest department (any garden-book writeups seem to talk only about getting rid of it), chickweed is always welcome in my garden. It’s pretty, it doesn’t take over, and it gives me a healing spring treat when I pull it out,. And it’s really easy to pull: about three seconds to clear an area of a few square feet.
This means that chickweed also fits well into the low-water garden: instead of replacing it with hot-weather annuals that you have to water, use it as a groundcover for spring bulbs, then leave chickweed and bulbs unwatered for the summer, the way they like it, for an easy-care seasonal show.
The groundcover technique works in pots, too. Chickweed ties things together and makes sense of the jumble of bulbs in this pot, making it into a tiny landscape. I often have such pots, consisting of small bulbs and offsets that need to grow to flowering size. (I don’t throw bulbs away. I figure if they can reproduce in nature, and in the fields of bulb propagators, I should be able to figure out a way to get them to do it here. Sometimes that actually works. But I always live in hope, so I have a lot of pots of random small bulbs.) Without the chickweed, these pots are no works of art; they just have a tangle of assorted foliage from whatever bulbs I stuck in there.
Even with a container monocrop, chickweed is (as its name might imply) stellar. Notice how the little white asterisks of chickweed blooms complement and echo this pot of ‘L’Innocence’ hyacinth.
Chickweed itself is worth some aesthetic appreciation. Euell Gibbons describes it in detail in Stalking the Healthful Herbs: “You will see a single line of tiny hairs running up one side of the stem. When this line reaches the leaves, it continues up the opposites side of the stem to the next pair, alternating the side of the stem on which it chooses to travel at each pair of leaves. ”
And while I’d noticed the tiny star-like flowers closing at night, and on rainy days, I hadn’t noticed what Gibbons saw at the close of evening: “…the paired leaves approach one another so their upper surfaces fold over the tender, developing butds in their axils, and the outermost pair of fully developed leaves envelop the terminal bud as though trying to protect the tender, growing shoot. ”
But chickweed is more than just beautiful in my eyes. Gibbons points out the nutritious qualities; he cooks it in with other vegetables, and uses it in what he calls a Green Drink, a blendered health drink involving mostly herbs. Many people in my area make this kind of drink, but most of the time I prefer using my herbs in tastier ways. Chickweed isn’t particularly delicious, but it’s not bad, either; sort of bland and juicy and crunchy. Sometimes I make it into a tea with other garden foliage (fresh leaves must be simmered gently, covered, for ten minutes to extract the goodies). Sometimes I throw it in salad (I particularly like it in potato salads, but it doesn’t keep well, so it’s best to use it as a garnish at the last minute.) Sometimes I eat the crunchy stems and leaves just as they are, from the garden.
That’s the way chickens like to eat it, so much, apparently, that they gave this plant its most common common name. Other common names are: Mouse-ear, Satinflower, Starweed, Tongue Grass, White Bird’s-eye, Winterweed.
Winterweed, of course, means that it’s a plant which can be used year-round in many areas. Herbalists took advantage of its high vitamin C content; it’s another scurvy-preventing herb, like miner’s lettuce and strawberry leaves. It also has cooling qualities that may be useful in fevers or as poultices on inflammations and itches. (It’s also very juicy, which makes it easy to use as an emergency poultice for a bug bite or sore. Just mash it between your fingers, or between two rocks, and put it on the affected place.)
Herbalist David Hoffman says that this kind of poultice can even help eczema and psoriasis, while Gibbons points out that the old herbalist’s advice to wash wounds or sores in cool chickweed tea might mean that chickweed has antibiotic qualities.
Some herbalists credit chickweed with additional healing abilities; they use it for colds, coughs, tumors, hemorrhoids, sore eyes, and rheumatism. Others claim it’s useless. My best guess is that many of the benefits of chickweeed have to do with high mineral and vitamin content. Cutting-edge nutritional science is finding out something herbalists have known for centuries: a significant amount of illness stems from vitamin or mineral deficiency, or at least is complicated by it. But not everyone responds the same way to the same treatment; people’s chemistry differs wildly. Chickweed may well work for some and not for others.
To me, chickweed is beautiful, nutritious, and the ultimate in easy care. Scoff if you will; it will remain one of the quiet mainstays of my garden.
Magic and Medicine of Plants, Reader’s Digest Association, 1986
Stalking the Healthful Herbs, Euell Gibbons, David MacKay Co. , Inc, 1966