How to Identify Chickweed — Foraging for Common Edible Weeds
- Sam Sycamore
- Published on
- Last updated
Also known as winterweed, chickenwort
Caryophyllaceae (Carnation / Pink) family
According to Sam Thayer (Incredible Wild Edibles, 2017), what is commonly referred to as "common chickweed" or Stellaria media is in fact three separate but nearly identical species: S. media, S. pallida, and S. neglecta. The latter tends to be larger overall, while S. pallida is especially small. For foraging purposes it's not necessary to determine which of the species you have; you can treat all three the same, as we will for the rest of this profile. There are many other species in the Stellaria genus found throughout North America that are also edible.
What is chickweed?
Very common tender herbaceous plant found worldwide; all parts are edible. Exceptionally nutritious "weed" with a pleasantly mild flavor.
- easily recognizable pointed-oval leaf shape; opposite leaves
- tiny 5-petaled white flowers, deeply cleft so as to look like 10
- 5 hairy sepals
- single line of hairs running down each stem and leaf stem
Young chickweed sprouts emerging in late fall.
Where to find chickweed
Common in lawns and gardens, marginal and recently disturbed soils; often lines trails and pathways in woodland spaces.
Found in every possible nook and cranny in urban and suburban environments.
Prefers cooler, wetter conditions, and tolerates much more shade than other similarly "weedy" species.
Originally from Eurasia, now naturalized all across North America and throughout the world. A mature chickweed stem from an overwintered plant in later winter.
Chickweed can quickly take over recently disturbed soil.
When to look for chickweed
Will tolerate light freezes and germinate anytime soil temperature is above freezing. Doesn't love dry or hot conditions above the mid-80s Fahrenheit.
Throughout the Northern Hemisphere, chickweed will be most active in spring and fall, sometimes persisting all summer and possibly all winter in more mild climates.
This healthy specimen was already quite mature in late winter in Kentucky.
Why forage for chickweed?
Chickweed is one of the most ubiquitous and abundant edible wild greens on Earth. It outcompetes essentially all of our cultivated greens in terms of nutrient density. All parts are edible raw, it is very easy to identify, and there is no risk of harming the plant population or the local ecosystem by harvesting it.
Many farmers and gardeners consider chickweed an unwanted nuisance, but you could make the case that it is actually providing valuable services to your soil and your crops by carpeting the bare ground and holding warmth and moisture down at surface level.
Five deeply-cleft white petals that almost look like ten—that's chickweed, alright!
How to gather chickweed
When you stumble upon a young chickweed sprout, you can pull up the whole plant and consume it raw. You might opt to separate the root from the stem.
Unlike many other edible wild greens, chickweed is still delicious when in bloom.
As the plant matures, it grows in a trailing, matted vine-like habit—sometimes propping itself up with enough density—and becomes too stringy and fibrous beyond the top inch or two at the tips of the stems. At this point it's best to harvest by clipping off those tops with scissors or a sharp blade.
The flavor is very mellow with a light crunch, not unlike a mild lettuce or young spinach.
Consume it raw whenever you stumble upon it, or gather it and add to salads, sandwiches, or anywhere else you'd use leafy salad greens.
Store it in a plastic bag in the fridge so it can stay cool and retain moisture, and it'll generally keep that way for a few days. But chances are good that there's plenty more waiting for you wherever you look.
How to sustainably work with chickweed
Chickweed is a super hardy and vigorous early-successional plant that thrives in marginal and disturbed soil all around the world.
It is considered "naturalized" outside of its native range, which is to say, it was "invasive" at one point in time, but the invasion is now over, and it has become established to the point that it is a fixture on the global landscape.
Chickweed thrives everywhere humans go, whether we pay attention to it or not, and it doesn't need our help proliferating. Enjoy it anytime you stumble upon it—as long as you know the specimens are clean and dog-pee-free!
You might consider intentionally cultivating chickweed in your garden as a cool-weather cover crop/green manure. In this case, you will have to patiently observe a known patch on a daily basis once flowers appear in order to catch the miniscule seeds when they arrive. Otherwise, just let existing patches do their thing in your garden and over time they will spread quite easily on their own.
Mouse-ear chickweed is also edible but too hairy to be palatable.
Cerastium spp. (often C. vulgatum or sometimes C. arvense, also known as field chickweed)
Caryophyllaceae (Carnation / Pink) family
- edible lookalike; comparable flavor
- similar size and growth habit
- all parts completely covered in fine hairs; this trait makes it much less desirable than its cousin
Scarlet pimpernel is toxic but easily distinguished from common chickweed thanks to its pink-orange flowers and lack of hairs.
Primulaceae (Primrose) family
- toxic lookalike; potentially fatal to humans and animals, though you'd need to consume a very large quantity
- similar growth habit; prefers similar growing conditions
- sometimes found growing among or adjacent to patches of chickweed
- flowers are shades of pink, orange and red — chickweed always has white flowers
- no hairs on stems—chickweed always has one line of hairs on its stems
- often has dark red spots on underside of leaves—chickweed never has red spots
- flavor is sharply bitter and unpleasant—chickweed has a very mild and pleasant flavor
Foraging North America
Did you find this article helpful?
This is an excerpt from Foraging North America: The Botany, Taxonomy and Ecology of Edible Wild Plants.
Foraging North America is a 12-week crash course designed to arm you with a functional working knowledge of botany and taxonomy that you can take with you out onto the land to fast-track the ID process and boost your confidence when gathering wild foods for the first (or five-hundredth!) time.
You'll get a practical education in ecological literacy by applying the ethos of conservation through use—the (surprisingly) radical notion that humans can, in fact, have a positive impact on the environments that we move through.
Food is everywhere—you just need to know what to look for!