Chickweed, which one was that again? When I started researching plants I could forage they all looked the same. Almost every guide and piece of literature I had would mention it, but I couldn’t seem to find it anywhere. Eventually I figured it out, the key was having someone show me exactly what it was, which is really the best way to learn with any plant.
Chickweed(s) that most people eat are going to be a number of different species of plants in the genus Stellaria. There’s a reason they can be tricky to pick out if you’re new to foraging too: they’re small and delicate as opposed to having large leaves or a structure that stands out compared to something like dandelions that most people are familiar with. Every type of chickweed I’ve picked if I wasn’t looking for it is really easy to overlook. Don’t overlook it though, to me it’s Nature’s forageable microgreen, and I think it’s better than any other on the market.
Like hunting other plants and mushrooms, once I knew what it looked like and had picked it a few times I started to see it everywhere. I would find it here and there while I was out on forays, but it wasn’t until I found it growing in a friends garden that I got to pick enough to actually do something with.
My girlfriend’s mother Dorothy had been allowing it to grow in her garden, a practice most people who know something about gardening would probably look down at. There’s some old knowledge in what she was doing though, forgotten techniques of gardening that take into account knowledge of each individual plant, no matter if you planted them, if they were volunteers from piles of seeds left for rabbits to eat, or if they came on their own as “weeds”, like the chickweed.
Weeds can be invasive, psychologically and physically. To most self-respecting gardeners, they’re appearance is a threat. The secret Dorothy knew was that some are more invasive than others. Galinsoga for instance, is very invasive can go through multiple generations in a year and will choke other plants out quickly. Chickweed and the other plants Dorothy allowed to grow in her garden are more tame, as far as weeds go.
Mowing to force young growth
Sure you could pull them out if you wanted to and at the end of the season it’s good to do a good garden clean-up and remove mature plants that have gone through their reproductive cycle. Watching Dorothy and her husband go about their basic business one day showed me the trick to keeping a good supply of chickweed around throughout the summer: a lawn mower.
The chickweed grows lower to the ground, and the lower to the ground the better it tastes, since it’s younger. They don’t plant the chickweed as much as they allow it to grow on the peripheries of where the other plants live. By mowing down the chickweed when you mow the lawn, you invigorate it’s growth and force it back to the earlier stage of growth that’s the best for eating. Like just about everything else, young and tender is the way to go with chickweed, as it gets older it can get stringy and tough.
Why I harvest from the garden
I don’t usually pick chickweed while I’m out foraging for other more elusive things, mushrooms for example. If I can get it, and other edible plants that aren’t too aggressive from areas around the garden at home as opposed to the outskirts of the woods or some park that requires travel, and skip the transportation that could involve having to go back to the car, pack an iced cooler, or some other plan to keep them cool and avoid them wilting in the field, I have more time to hunt mushrooms that I couldn’t grow in the garden no matter how hard I tried.
Species I prefer for eating
There’s a lot of different species of “chickweed” out there, technically, the chickweed in your lawn might be Stellaria media, while the chickweed in your neighbor’s lawn is Stellaria pubera. If you’re wondering, yes, there’s a difference. I’m not a botanist, but I can often discern differences in species of things, even if I can’t narrow them down to the exact species. Often it’s because of differences in how they taste, with chickweeds, I prefer less-hairy species with larger, juicy leaves. It can be confusing to pick apart differences since multiple species enjoy the same habitat and grow together, but after you pick any plant a few times, you start to develop a relationship with it, an understanding of its features. Here’s an up-close picture of two different species.
How I harvest
Early in the morning to avoid heat, I go to the garden, take a pair of scissors, grab a handful of chickweed and cut the bunch a few inches off the ground with a scissors. Afterwords I put it in a paper bag, then I keep the greens cool as much as possible in the shade while I gather other greens for the restaurant.
Once the greens get to the restaurant they’re immersed in cool water for 5-10 minutes to crisp them if they’ve wilted at all from travel, then rolled in a towel to shed water, or spun in a salad spinner if the greens are hardy like galinsoga, amaranth or dandelions. Afterwords they’re refrigerated immediately. The work isn’t done though, they still need to be trimmed to remove any tough lower portions so they can be used at a moment’s notice.
The chickweed can be trimmed right away and stored or stored and then trimmed into serve-able pieces for service later. For storing under refrigeration, restaurant scenarios are different than how I treat greens. At the restaurant, I store greens in plastic fish boxes with firm sides that stop greens from getting crushed and allow for stacking to save space. At home you can use plastic ziploc bags with a slightly damp cloth or towel inside, which works good too. Store your greens at home however you like, but try refreshing whatever you pick in water before you refrigerate it, it restores life to any greens, not just chickweed.
Chickweed is a beautiful, petite green with a crisp texture and mild flavor. One of my favorite ways to describe it to chefs is as “Nature’s Microgreen”, since garnishing plates with baby greens can add a nice touch, especially to cold dishes. Speaking of cold too, that is how I use chickweed 99.99% of the time. I’ve had chickweed cooked, it can be done, but with such a beautiful, petite green, unless you have piles and piles of it and don’t know what to do, I think it’s just best to plop it on things, it adds elegance to any plate it touches.