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As temperatures drop, so do the number of wild edibles that I can forage. But there are a few stalwarts that carry on through late fall and even into winter, and chickweed is one of those.
Chickweed's scientific name, Stellaria media, translates as the middle or common star. It is common indeed if you have a garden or a farm, where it frequently appears as a weed. It thrives in the disturbed soil habitats us humans create, including parks and abandoned lots. It's a low-growing plant that rarely gets as high as a foot tall. Where it is exposed to full sun it hugs the ground and gets unappetizingly stringy.
What you want are the plants growing in partial sun or part shade and moist soil. In those conditions, chickweed's tangled, slender stems and small, paired leaves will be lush and tender. The leaves rarely reach an inch long, more often less than half that, and are oval with pointed tips and smooth margins.
The white flowers are the part of the plant that looks star-like. They are only about 1/8-inch in diameter, and resemble tiny daisies. If you look very closely, you'll see that although at a casual glance the flowers appear to have ten petals, there are actually only five petals that are deeply cleft.
Look even closer (a magnifying loop is handy here), and you'll spot a unique characteristic of chickweed: there is one line of hairs on the stem. That's right – not uniformly hairy stems, but just that single line of hairs. The flower buds, on the other hand, are hairy all over.
Once you find a tender patch of chickweed several inches high, you can encourage it to produce even more of this delicious vegetable by harvesting it in the following way:
Hold a bunch of the stems in one hand while with the other hand you snip or twist off the top 2 to 3 inches of the plants. All of the above ground parts of chickweed are edible, so don't worry if there are some flowers mixed in there. By giving chickweed a “haircut” in this way you encourage even more tender growth, and in this way can harvest repeatedly from the same patch.
Beginner foragers sometimes confuse poisonous spotted spurge (Euphorbia maculata) with chickweed. The foolproof way to make sure you've got the right plant is to snap a stem in two: spurge will ooze white sap but chickweed will not.
Stellaria media is a moderately invasive European species. You are not harming its population by harvesting it, especially not with the cut-and-come-again method I just described.
Chickweed deserves its genus name Stellaria in my opinion because it is a star ingredient. It transforms ordinary, everyday meals into something special. I use it instead of lettuce in sandwiches, combine it with garlic mustard leaves for winter pestos, and it is one of my favorite salad greens.
Always be 100% certain of your identification before eating any plant or mushroom.
Leda Meredith teaches foraging skills internationally. She describes her ongoing food adventures at www.LedaMeredith.com. She is also a food preservation expert and you can view her videos on foraging and food preservation here.