Thursday, March 3, 2016

Foraging: Identifying Wild Edible Chickweed



Many people describe chickweed (Stellaria media) as their favorite wild edible green of spring. Many gardeners consider it a difficult-to-remove, annoying weed. Those gardeners just haven't tried it yet!

The foodie world is starting to follow along with the former group, and chickweed is showing up on menus of restaurants that focus on seasonal and/or local organic produce. Chickweed is also starting to show up in places like farmers markets and in the form of herbal supplements and teas at Whole Foods.

There's really everything to like about chickweed: it has a mild, fresh sweetness which some people compare to young corn or iceberg or boston lettuce, it grows in super abundance, easy to harvest and quick to grow back in the early spring when little else is growing, fairly easy to identify AND it even looks pretty!

Technically, chickweed isn't native to the Americas, so it's also an invasive species. Of course, it's been here for generations, so any ecological damage has already been done, but if you're into invasivore eating (eating invasive species) that's something to consider as well.

So let's get started on how to find, identify, harvest, prepare and eat this tasty little weed!

Identification difficulty: Beginner


The flowers have 5 petals which are deeply indented to resemble 10 petals. This is one of the key ID features.

Identifying Chickweed: Stellaria media*

  1. Chickweed grows in dense mats, with individual plants as long as 6-9 inches, but spreading
    out, rather than up, with a total height of no more than 4 inches or so. 
  2. Chickweed has bright green leaves with a classic "leaf" shape, sometimes slightly teardrop shaped.
  3. Leaves grow in opposite pairs, perpendicular to each other. So if the top pair grows "north and south" then the second pair will grow "east and west". 
  4. Flowers are white and have 5 petals, so they appear to have 10 petals. (see pic above) This is one of the most important identification points, at least while the plant is in bloom. 
  5. Chickweed does not have a milky sap when the stem is broken.
  6. Chickweed has a line of fine hair down one side of the stem. Also unopened flower buds will be covered with more of this same hair. (See pic below). This is the most important identification point.
This photo shows many of the important features for identification: the unusual flower petals, the line of hair down the stem and the fine hairs on unopened flower buds.

Poisonous Look-a-Like plants: Scarlet Pimpernel & Spurge

Scarlet Pimpernel looks nearly identical to Chickweed, but using the identification points on this page will prevent you from getting the two confused.

Poisonous: Scarlet Pimpernel closely resembles chickweed, especially when not in bloom.
The stems are smooth and hairless, in direct contrast to the fine line of hair on chickweed.
Photo curtesy of Matthew Garza at http://www.mistermatt.net

  1. Scarlet pimpernel, (Anagallis arvensis), when in bloom, has star-shaped blossoms, that have 5 "normal" petals. These petals are not deeply indented, and they do not resemble 10 petals. The flowers are usually salmon pink--but be careful, they can also be white.
  2. Scarlet Pimpernel has hairless stems. This is why the line of fine hair on chickweed is the most important indicator.
  3. Scarlet pimpernel can be deadly, though it is unlikely that a healthy adult could eat enough of it, it would be more likely to cause a problem in children. 
Spurges have also been confused with chickweed.
  1. Spurges do not resemble chickweed as closely as scarlet pimpernel, but they have been known to cause confusion. 
  2. The leaves on spurge grow opposite each other, with each pair parallel (not perpendicular) to the pair above. The result is that the leaves look like a ladder--not a compass rose like on chickweed.
  3. Every spurge I know of has serrated, indented or toothed leaves. However, sometimes these serrations are very small, and the teeth can also be small and widely spaced--appearing smoother. 
  4. When the stem of a spurge is broken, it exudes milky white sap. Chickweed will not leak milky fluid.

Edible look-a-like plant: Mouse-Eared Chickweed.


There is one other plant which closely resembles chickweed (Stellaria media) and that's it's mouse-eared chickweed (Cerastium varieties). These plants have darker green leaves, the leaf shape is also generally longer, either oval or lance-shaped, and the leaves are covered in fine hairs. The flowers of mouse-eared chickweeds are also white, and indented, but not quite as deeply as that of regular (Stellaria) chickweed. Mouse-eared chickweed is edible, and the hairs help identify it from scarlet pimpernel, however, the thinner the leaves, the easier it is to mistake for other plants, especially when not in bloom. Cerastiums are often planted in rock-gardens and as ground-cover, and seeds can be purchased online. 


*As always you should never accept anything you read on the internet without verifying it for yourself with either a local expert or several publications. Colors can vary from monitor to monitor, and images are not as clear as in printed materials. Personally, before I eat anything I verify it with at least 3 reliable sources. I have found this to be a remarkably good way of ensuring my safety when foraging. 


Lush growths of chickweed like this come in the early to mid-spring, in areas that receive a lot of shade.


How to find Chickweed

Chickweed is a plant of early to mid spring. It can't endure the summer heat. In deep shade, and with good rainfall, I've found good growth as late as June in the Northeast, but that's a rarity.

Chickweed has spread throughout most, if not all, of the habitable world. It's certainly throughout North America. Chances are you, or a neighbor, have some growing in the yard right now. Though it can and will grow in sunny areas, like yards, the best, most luxuriant growths of chickweed are going to come from the woods, especially the edges of woods where they meet the meadows, or along trails and other openings in the forest. Chickweed likes it best where it's shaded most of the day, but where it gets some indirect light at certain times of the day. Chickweed growing in the sun will also tend to go to flower and seed quickly, and be gone within a week or two. Chickweed from it's ideal conditions can be harvested for 4 to 6 weeks.

Chickweed harvested from ideal conditions is
bright green, and has lots of large, thicker leaves.
The photos on the plate above, harvested from full sun
in my backyard, have fewer, thinner leaves. 

Sustainability

Chickweed is a non-native species in the Americas, it originated in Europe and the Indian subcontinent.

Despite this, it's generally not considered invasive. Invasive generally implies that the plant is doing active harm to the native environment/species. Chickweed has been here for generations, and whatever harm it may have had when it was first brought over, it has long since found it's niche in the ecosystem.

So since it's not damaging the environment, it's important to harvest it in a sustainable manner, especially if you want to continue to enjoy chickweed throughout the season, and in future springs.

Where the plant grows abundantly, like in the picture above, you can generally harvest a good with impunity, as it grows back quickly in ideal conditions. In the sun where only a few scrawny plants grow, you might want to leave it alone, or transplant to a shadier area.


Eating Chickweed

Chickweed is a great green for pretty much anyone and everyone, as already mentioned, it's many people's favorite wild plant, and is becoming increasingly popular in restaurants that showcase local, sustainable and seasonal foods.

Chickweed is one of the few wild greens I would heartily recommend everyone should try raw, making it an excellent choice for salads. Flavor-wise, the sweetness and freshness pairs well with sweet flavors, like fruit and fruit-based vinaigrettes, and also with pungent flavors, like strong cheeses and fish. Freshly caught trout, gutted and stuffed with just-picked chickweed, then cooked over the campfire is truly a treat.

Chickweed salad with a little lettuce for texture, clementines, goat cheese and balsamic vinegrette.
However, some people may not enjoy the texture of raw chickweed. Like an herb, chickweed is mostly stem, and the stem is a little on the fibrous side, and also has that hair. If you find you don't enjoy chickweed raw, try chopping and gently sautéing or wilting it. Prepared this way, chickweed is excellent with mushrooms and/or eggs, and lends itself to omelettes. Just keep in mind the delicate nature of the plant, and don't over-cook.

If even likely cooked you still don't like the stem-texture, consider any preparation that involves pureeing the plant. Pestos, soups and chimichurri are all excellent options.

Finally, unlike most wild greens, chickweed keeps extremely well in the fridge: better than most cultivated herbs, and at least as well as cultivated lettuce. I usually give it a whirl in my salad spinner, drain the water, and use it throughout the week, or even as long as 12 days (not that I generally don't eat it much before then). 
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