We define weeds as a plant growing out of the place where you want it or growing at the wrong time. Sometimes these are plants that grow easily in a place, from ‘garden escapees’ with parts breaking off and being carried by birds, or downstream through the catchment, sometimes seeds even hitch a ride on travellers’ shoes or in the folds of their clothes.
Does this lovely little flower deserve to be cast aside as ‘merely a weed’, a plant ‘in the wong place’? its only fate to be removed where ever it has the misfortune to grow? Well not in my garden. Chickweed are edible tasty and nutritious, and better still they grow during winter when a continuous homegrown supply of greens isn’t always available in my cool climate garden. The Japanese celebrate this little plant as one of the Seven Herbs of Winter and its used in a traditional dish welcoming the return of Spring (or wishing for it!) There are a couple of plants that have over the years been locally known as chickweed in the Blue Mountains, Stellaria media – Common Chickweed and Cerastium sp – Mouse-ear Chickweed. Worldwide there are literally 100s of plants known as chickweed. Why? Could it be that the chooks like them? Mine certainly do, and they know when they’re onto a good thing. (Same goes for Duckweed etc….
Our ‘Common Chickweed’ then is described as a low, inconspicuous, annual groundcover 8 to 20 cm tall. It forms mats around 40 cm across, with tiny delicate oval, smooth-edged leaves (1 to 2.5 cm long) that end in a small tip. These grow in pairs and lie opposite each other across the stem. The stem has a fine line of hairs that extend along one side of its length. Super small white star like flowers are a distinguishing feature. They are 3 mm across, with 5 petals so deeply divided they seem to be twice that number. Mouse-eared Chickweed is even smaller and is hairier to the extent of being considered sticky. People with skin allergies to the daisy plant family can sometimes react to chickweed. Once you know these plants they are quiet distinctive, but if in doubt get someone who knows to show you. If you snap the stem it does NOT produce a white latex sap. If you see a milky sap, then that’s probably ‘Petty Spurge’ aka Euphorbia peplus, which like all the Euphorbia family is definitely not edible (but still useful).
Spot the difference: Euphorbia vs Stellaria below
The act of using this simple little ground cover plant wonderfully illustrates our 12 permaculture design principles
- Think before you pull the weed out, as there’s a lot a weed can tell you about your patch of ground. Chickweed tends to grow in cultivated improved and more fertile soil, so if you were looking for a spot for your cabbages, which thrive in poor soil, best pop them somewhere else. You can use the chickweed as a companion for another plant. Observe and interact
- All that sunlight going into photosynthesis and making the chickweed grow – I could think of this plant as an unwanted weed, or valuable crop. Added fresh into a salad or creating a pesto or a salad dressing By freezing any leftovers it can last for over a year. Principle Number 2 is Catch and store energy.
- This often under appreciated plant can be made into other resources like poultices, salves, tinctures which you might trade with your friends and neighbours who are not sensible enough to- Obtain a yield
- Considered a weed in the lawns and horticultural enterprises, many people would not think twice about using chemicals to manage this plant. Reason tells me this is overkill, with its shallow roots it is so easy to pull up by hand. Keep pulling them though, and you’ll soon discover that there’s a seed bank of thousands of seeds down there, so if you really don’t want to grow chickweed, change the soil conditions so that you’re not favoring this plant. It’s important if you really don’t want chickweed coming up on your patch to Apply self-regulation and accept feedback
- Chickweed is available in you garden during winter months so why import basil to make pesto, from some other climate zone which will use all those food miles’ petrochemicals when you’ve a resource literally at your feet. The Japanese even honour this little herb in the spring-time festival, Nanakusa-no-sekku – Use and value renewable resources and services
- At the very least if I’m not inclined to use a bumper crop of chickweed as food or medicine I recycle it through the compost and not through landfill. That way I value and making use of all the resources so that nothing is throw away – Produce no waste
- One of the things that makes weed species so successful is often how long the seeds are viable and able to germinate, for common chickweed seed, this is up to 18 years. When you understand all sorts of natural models and cycles, that work you can manipulate such knowledge to your advantage – Design from patterns to details
- Weeds are often called pioneer species, because they build up nutrients and form pathways in disturbed soil. Chickweed contains lots of important minerals (including magnesium, iron, calcium, manganese, phosphorus and potassium) which return to the top layer of soil when it dies off. If we are in a mindset to fight weeds, we pass up ac companion planting opportunity to along with our intentionally planted crops. In this case the addition of vitamins and minerals makes for stronger more vigorous veggies So … Integrate rather than segregate
- When planning a garden, using examples from Nature that work means less work for gardeners like you and me. Minor and leisurely adjustments like allowing chickweed to coexist in your garden as an alternative mulch can make it easier to maintain than traditional cultivated gardens, you won’t discover your ideal companion planting gems unless you.. Use small and slow solutions
- Growing single crops in monocultures requires a lot of energy inputs both in work and petrochemicals in the form of fertilizers & pesticides. A diverse garden confuses pests, and builds a healthy polyculture, which can actively resist insect attacks and other threats. So leaving some weeds in place is also a way of putting into practise Use and value diversity
- The boundary between what is acceptable food or medicine has changed beyond all recognition over the centuries, and our diets have not necessarily improved for all these changes. Some of these older herbal remedies are once again becoming valued and productive. Chickweed has long been included in winter herb salads in areas where it grows wild. It’s also one of the seven Winter herbs celebrated in Japan. Use edges and value the marginal
- Who know with the possible onslaught of climate change, information about all sorts of weeds may be useful for all the above reasons and more. In the mean time I’m happy to add it to add this my list of plants to grow, so when I really need them, they’ll be there so I can – Creatively use and respond to change
Learn more about Permaculture Principles and put them to use in a Permaculture Design Certificate Course near you – see courses