Chickweed (Stellaria media) is a member of the Caryophyllaceae, or carnation, family. There are about 25 species of Stellaria, including some native varieties, growing abundantly in the wild in North America. Chickweed is a European native that has naturalized throughout the world in fertile, mineral-rich soil. It thrives in shady, moist locations in gardens, near human habitations, and on the edge of woods. The herb is often found growing under the shade of oak trees. Chickweed is a persistent annual. It self-seeds and may produce as many as five generations within one season.
The genus name Stellaria refers to chickweed's tiny, white, star-shaped flowers. The common name refers to the herb's appeal to birds and barnyard fowl, particularly young chickens. Other common names include Indian chickweed, stitchwort, starwort, white bird's eye, chick wittles, satin flower, adder's mouth, mouse ear, starweed, passerina, tongue grass, and winter weed. Chickweed has been used for centuries. The nutritious herb was fed to caged birds and rabbits. It was also traditionally prepared as an early spring tonic, eaten fresh or steamed, to cleanse the kidneys and liver. English physician Nicholas Culpeper described chickweed as "a fine soft pleasing herb under the dominion of the Moon."
Chickweed is a juicy, succulent, low-growing, and delicate herb which grows from a slender taproot. The straggly, weak stems may stretch along the ground for two feet or more forming dense mats only a few inches off the ground. The light-green, oval, and entire leaves grow in opposite pairs about an inch apart along the smooth and branching stem. A single line of fine white hairs grow along one side or the other of the thin stems, alternating at the node of each pair of leaves. Stems are slightly swollen at the joints. Leaves appear stalkless at the growing tip but the older leaves develop stalks at least as long as the attached leaf. At night the half-inch long leaves close in on each other to protect the developing buds. The tiny white flowers grow singly in the leaf axils of the upper leaves. The five petals are deeply incised, and smaller than the pointed green sepals. Blossoms open in the sun and close on cloudy, gray days and throughout the night hours. Minuscule seed capsules, with a barely-perceptible toothed edge, follow the blossoms. In damp weather the "teeth" swell, effectively closing the capsule to protect the ripening seed. The tiny yellow-orange seeds continue to ripen even after the herb is harvested. Chickweed self-seeds freely in cool, moist habitats.
The entire chickweed plant is edible. The stems and leaves are used in medicinal preparations. Herbalists, however, disagree about the medicinal potency of chickweed. One writer, a professor of pharmacognosy, dismissed chickweed as a "worthless weed" and an "ineffective herb." Other writers and herbalists praise the diminutive herb for providing "optimum nutrition" and for its
Gathered fresh, chickweed is beneficial in poultice form to ease rheumatic pain and to treat boils and abscesses. The herb can also be used to draw out splinters and the stingers of insects and to dissolve warts. Its vulnerary (wound-healing) action speeds the healing of cuts and wounds. Its emollient qualities soothe itching and irritation of eczema or psoriasis. An infusion may be added to bath water for soothing relief of inflamed skin. It also provides relief to swollen and painful hemorrhoids.
Another species of chickweed, S. dichotoma, known as yin chai hu is used in Chinese medicine to stop nosebleed, to reduce heavy menstrual bleeding, and to bring down fevers. The species S. alsine is also used in Chinese medicine as a medicinal remedy for treating colds, snakebites, and even traumatic injury.
Gather chickweed from young plants before or during flowering and throughout the year. Snipping the stems will encourage growth of new branches for later harvest. The freshly harvested herb will keep for several days if refrigerated. The fresh herb may be eaten in salads, or very, very lightly steamed as a potherb. Chickweed has a somewhat bland taste, so other edible greens may be added to the pot to enhance the flavor.
Infusion: Place 2 oz of fresh chickweed leaves and stems in a warmed glass container. Bring 2.5 cups of fresh, nonchlorinated water to the boiling point, and add it to the herbs. Cover and infuse the tea for about 10 minutes. Strain and drink warm. The prepared tea will store for about two days in a sealed container in the refrigerator. Chickweed tea may be enjoyed by the cupful up to three times a day. A strong infusion may be used as a skin wash or bath additive to soothe itching and inflamed skin.
Poultice: Chop fresh chickweed leaves and stems in sufficient quantity to cover the area being treated. Sprinkle the herb with water and place over the area. Cover the herbal mass with a strip of wet cotton gauze to hold the poultice in place. When gathering the older, tougher plant, the herb may be simmered either in water alone or in a 50/50 mixture of water and vinegar for about five minutes. Apply to the skin after the mixture has sufficiently cooled.
Tincture: Combine four ounces of finely-cut fresh or powdered dry herb with one pint of brandy, gin, or vodka, in a glass container. The alcohol should be enough to cover the plant parts. Place the mixture away from light for about two weeks, shaking several times each day. Strain and store in a tightly-capped, dark glass bottle. A standard dose is 1–4 ml of the tincture three times a day.
The wind-blown pollen of chickweed may aggravate hay fever. Chickweed is considered safe for all external applications. There was a report in 1980 of "temporary paralysis" after ingestion of large amounts of the infused herb, however there are no other documented reports of toxicity. The PDR For Herbal Medicines reports no health hazards when this herb is taken "with the proper administration of designated therapeutic dosages."
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