Botanical Morphology: Three Chickweeds of the Appalachians

“This herb is one of the commonest plants that is grown, I believe, in the vegetable kingdom, and yet one of the most useful remedial agents that God ever sent for the use of man: but it is one of the most despised and trampled under foot of plants.”

-Richard Lawrence Hool, Common Plants and Their Uses in Medicine (1922)


What was apparently true in 1922 is still true today. Chickweed is a marvelously healing food and is proliferous in most yards and waysides. Chickweed can be found in a variety of habitats, from sunny to partly shady light, mesic to hydric soil. It can tolerate flood-prone areas and prefers disturbed soil. It is naturalized across North America, to include all 50 US states and every territory in Canada. It is native to Eurasia. In this article, we’ll visit three common chickweeds that are prevalent in the mid-atlantic region.


Stellaria media syn. Alsine media- Common Chickweed (Stitchwort, Chickenwort, Craches, Maruns, and Winterweed)

This is by far the most well known and most abundant of all the chickweeds.


Stellaria from the latin word stellaris, meaning “pertaining to the stars” and media meaning “of the middle,” which is unclear as to whether this is referring to its size or the cleft down the middle of the petals.


In Botanologia (or The English Herbal, 1710), William Salmon categorized several species of chickweeds and speedwells as under the genus “Alsine.” Stellaria media was referred to as Alsine notha, meaning Bastard Chickweed or Cross-Bred Chickweed, and later Alsine media.


Morphology:

  • Soft, tender, almost succulent leaves and stems that bruise and wilt easily

  • The stem is glabrous (without hairs) except for a single line of very fine hairs that grow along it that changes position at each node

  • Stem is cylindrical, and can vary from bright green to reddish-brown

  • Opposite leaves, with entire (smooth) margins

  • Leaves glabrous (smooth) though occasionally have very fine hairs on the margins or underside of the leaf

  • Leaves are ovate in shape with accuminate (tapered) tips

  • At the bottom of the stem, the leaves have short petioles that are often slighly pubescent. As you move up the stem closer their petioles become shorter and become more and more attenuate, until eventually they lose their petiole entirely, having sessile attachment (no petiole)

  • They grow long and lanky, bend over and creating a thick mat

  • Pedicles emerge individually from the axils occasionally lower down but generally clustering above the top leaves, terminating in small cymes of a few flowers

  • Flowers are roughly 5mm in diameter, have 5 bifid petals (deeply cleft nearly to the base of petal, giving it the appearance of having 10 petals), 3 styles, 2-10 stamens, with the obvious green superior ovary in the center

  • They have 5 sepals that are green and pubescent, and longer than the petals


Edible & Medicinal:

  • A nutrient dense mild green, eaten raw or cooked

  • 1 cup of raw chickweed contains 96 calories, 15g of carbohydrates, 6g of protein, and 1g of fat. Compare that to Spinach at 23 calories, 3g of carbohydrates, 2g of protein, and zero fat. It is packed with vitamins and minerals, including B vitamins, magnesium, calcium, vitamin D, and more.

  • Chickweed is high in saponins. While too many saponins pose a risk of toxicity (in the case of Chickweed, you’d have to consume excessive amounts of it to be of concern), low levels of saponins are beneficial. They emulsify the lipid bilayer of our cells, increasing the assimilation of nutrients into the cell.

  • It is energetically cooling and moistening

  • It nutritive and strengthening for those recovering from severe or chronic illness or nutrient deficiencies

  • Soothing to all the mucus membranes

  • It is particularly soothing to the tissues of the the urinary tract, and is mildly diuretic

  • Emollient, great for all kinds of conditions of the skin. Soothes inflammation. A classic drawing agent.

  • A classic remedy for dry, spastic cough accompanied with weakness and shortness of breath, as in asthmatic conditions


In his text, Hool goes on later to say:

Lecturing on "Chickweed and Its Uses," on May 15th, 1897, to 300 members of the Wigan and District Amalgamated Association of Botanists (after telling them what effects it had as a remedial agent), they thought I was speaking from imagination or romancing about the benefits derived from the use of it; but since then most of those who were at the meeting have put my statements to the test and have found them correct in every instance I think I may say that after forty years' use of this so-called "weed" I may claim to know what it is able to do. . ..”

Cerastium fontanum Common Mouse-eared Chickweed (Common Mouse-ear, Starweed)

From the Latin cerastes, meaning “horned,” and fontanum, meaning “of the fountain” or “of the spring.” The horned aspect refers to the small teeth along the upper rim of its seed capsule.


C. fontanum is also found in all 50 states.


While both are considered Chickweeds, the Cerastium genera are differentiated from the Stellaria in that they have five styles per flower instead of three. Cerastiums are often referred to as the Mouse-eared Chickweeds. They are all members of the Caryophyllaceae (Pink Family).


Morphology:

Similar overall appearance to S. media with a few key differences:

  • A bit hardier- it doesn’t wilt as quickly as S. media

  • The whole plant is darker green than S. media

  • Several stems will sprout from the base

  • Leaf shape vary from lanceolate-ovate to broadly oblanceolate

  • Covered all over in fine hairs

  • The flower petals are less deeply divided, with a notch that extends about half-way down each petal

  • Each flower has 5 styles and 10 stamens (occasionally fewer) with yellow anthers

  • Flowers are larger than S. media

Left: C. fontanum, Right, S. media


Edible & Medicinal:

  • Most accounts of the medicinal uses of chickweed are in reference to Stellaria media, however other chickweeds have very similar properties to S. media

  • Traditionally used in its native regions by the indigenous people as a remedy for fevers and for coughs


Stellaria pubera (Star Chickweed)

Star Chickweed is native to all of the Appalachian states and is found in every state east of the Mississippi (with the exception of Maine), as well as in Minnesota and Nebraska. It is classified as endangered in Illinois and New Jersey. It is the showiest of the chickweeds, with larger flowers and beautiful red anthers.



Morphology:

  • Stem is pale green to pale purple, glabrous to slightly pubescent, or sometimes with 2 lines of hairs

  • Leaves are lanceolate in shape

  • Leaf margins are entire and ciliate (fine hairs line the edges)

  • The flowers are much larger than the former chickweeds, about 12mm in diameter

  • Flowers have 5 sepals that are the same length as the petals, 5 petals so deeply cleft that they may appear to be separated even upon careful examination

  • The ovary is white and visible in the center

  • They have 3 styles and 10 stamens with reddish-brown anthers


Two lines of hairs along the stem of S. pubera Left: S. pubera, Right, S. media


Edible & Medicinal:

  • Similar to other Chickweeds



Salmon aptly described Common Chickweed as "a very small Riant," which is one who is bright, cheerful, or smiling. She is one you'll certainly want to meet.



Anagallis arvensis Scarlet Pimpernel (Red Pimpernel, Red Chickweed, Poor Man’s Weatherglass, Shepherd’s Clock)

Scarlet Pimpernel is not a chickweed, but a mildly toxic chickweed look alike. It is a member of the Primulaceae (Primrose Family). When flowering, it is easy to tell it apart from Chickweed due to its

salmon-red blossoms. When not flowering, it looks extremely similar to Chickweed, but a quick and easy way to differentiate the two is to look at the stem. Scarlet Pimpernel has a square stem, whereas Chickweed’s stem is round.


Located in South Central Pennsylvania