Chickweed: Worth its Weight in Gold

How many plants do you know that are effective for a variety of ailments, whether taken internally or applied topically? How many have no drug interactions and can be used in unlimited doses? How many both taste good and are incredibly nutritious?

A new medical marvel from the folks in long white coats?

No! It's just the humble, ubiquitous chickweed (Stellaria media), a bane to the unenlightened gardener but a boon to the rest of us. Dr Herbert Nowell calls this perennial "worth its weight in gold" in the Dominion Herbal College Chartered Herbalist manual.

He recounts the story of a four-year-old boy covered from head to foot by "one mass of sores" and "treated constantly by medical men without any help." They told the parents the boy would have to grow out of what they considered an allergy.

However, a herbalist instructed the parents to bathe the boy night and morning from head to foot with chickweed decoction before applying a chickweed ointment (see sidebar) all over. The parents completely cured the boy and after five months, his skin became perfectly clear, with no recurrence after 15 years. (To apply a decoction topically, soak a sponge or face cloth in the decoction and sponge onto the patient's body. For milder cases, add chickweed to bath water. Tie the herb in cheesecloth to prevent messiness and clogging the tub.)

Chickweed grows as a low, loosely tangled mat of bright green stems and small oval leaves with tiny, star-shaped white flowers (hence the Latin name, Stellaria). The English name is derived from the fact that chickens love to eat this healthful plant, although it could just as easily have been called rabbitweed or gooseweed. Animals know a tasty tonic when they find it.

Nutritious Wonder

Best harvested anytime after its first green appearance in the spring, fresh chickweed is used both internally and externally. It can be consumed as a salad, pot herb or tea and has astringent, carminative, demulcent, diuretic, expectorant, laxative and refrigerant (body cooling) properties. Traditional Chinese medicine regards chickweed as sweet, moist and cool as well as vulnerary (wound healing). It doesn't dry well, losing many of its therapeutic qualities when dried.

The major constituents of chickweed are:

Ascorbic acid (vitamin C)

Beta-carotene (vitamin A precursor)

B vitamins thiamin (B[1]), riboflavin (B[2]) and niacin (B[3])

Bioflavonoids (found in fresh vegetables and fruits; confer various health benefits including protection from heart disease and cancer). One flavonoid is rutin, which strengthens capillaries, is effective for bruises, varicose veins and hemorrhoids and shows antiviral, anti-microbial and anticancer activity.

Coumarins soothe the vascular system and may benefit migraine sufferers.

Gamma-linolenic acid (omega-6 essential fatty acid)

Genistein (potent cancer fighter)

Minerals calcium, magnesium, potassium, iron, manganese (for protein and fat metabolism and blood sugar regulation), silicon compounds (for immune boosting, anti-aging and cardiovascular health) and zinc.

In the kitchen, fresh chickweed is a nutritious and delicious addition to salads. It can also be added to soups and stews. Throw some in a blender with your favorite juice, soy or nut milk for an inexpensive and healthful drink.

A decoction of the whole plant is prescribed for internal use as a postpartum purifier and emmenagogue promoting menstruation, galactogogue (promotes milk flow) and circulatory tonic.

When making ointment or cream, the herb is particularly effective combined with marsh mallow, a seaside plant readily found in health food stores.

Finally, when harvesting chickweed--or any other wild herb--ensure that the area has not been chemically sprayed. Don't be greedy and pull the herb up by the roots. Always leave enough for the plant to regenerate and re-seed.

Bruce Burnett grows herbs on Pender Island, BC.

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By Bruce Burnett

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