We never seem to learn. I suppose that’s how we come up with expressions like “we are our own worst enemy,” or the comic strip character Pogo’s famous line, “we have met the enemy and he is us” and the oft-repeated “he who does not learn from history is doomed to repeat it.” We seem to learn only very, very slowly, until the new idea contrary to our routine manner of doing things has a chance to sink in.
A case in point has to do with our well-established idea of what constitutes “food,” of how and where food should be grown and of our socially-acceptable ideas of what constitutes an urban “front yard.”
I welcome abundant rains whenever they fall here in this coastal desert plain where I live. In wet winters, what follows is prolific growth and an abundance of quality food growing virtually everywhere. Each year when we are so blessed with abundant rain, our ignorance and stupidity surfaces again.
“I HEARD IT ON THE RADIO — AN AD FOR TWO SEPARATE HERBICIDES DESIGNED TO KEEP OUR LAWNS GREEN AND KILL OFF THOSE TERRIBLE ‘WEEDS.’ WHAT WEEDS?”
Let me explain what bothers me the most. I was driving through the streets of my town noticing some lovely overgrown lawns. I could see, even when driving by, these “unkempt” lawns were full of food – wild foods.
And then I heard it on the radio — an ad for two separate herbicides designed to keep our lawns green and kill off those terrible “weeds.” What weeds?
The announcer told us if we buy his product we could eliminate dandelions and chickweed as if these were some sort of scourge upon mankind. Dandelion and chickweed?
Indeed, they are growing everywhere. But dandelion is one of the single richest sources of vitamins and minerals. It is so good for us it is often dubbed “poor man’s ginseng.” From this humble plant, we can produce salad greens, cooked greens, a vegetable from the crown and root, and a decent caffeine- free coffee substitute from the root.
Chickweed (Stellaria media) is another extremely nutritious plant we ought to use, not abuse. What’s so special about chickweed? It makes a great salad rich in vitamin C. It can be used by itself with dressing or you can mix in avocado, lettuce, tomatoes and other normal salad ingredients. Chickweed can also be cooked into soup, added to stews and used for tea (it’s said to be a good diuretic). Dried and powdered chickweed with wheat flour, run through a pasta maker, produces a uniquely-flavored green pasta. We have also added chickweed to our blender from time to time and mixed it in with various fruit or protein drinks.
Chickweed is tasty and versatile fresh, cooked, or dried. It’s also very good for you. A half-cup of chickweed (100 grams) contains the following: 160 mg. of calcium, 49 mg. of phosphorus, 29 mg. of iron, 82 mg. of sodium, 243 mg. of potassium, 350 mg. of ascorbic acid (vitamin C), 200 micrograms of beta carotene, 500 micrograms of niacin and 100 micrograms of riboflavin.
WHERE DOES IT COME FROM?
Chickweed is a European native found all over the United States and worldwide. It is easy to recognize with its opposite leaves having tips which come to a point, the weak stem which sprawls over the ground and by the very fine line of white hair running along one side of the needle-thin stem. Also, if you carefully observe the small white flower, you’ll see what appears to be 10 petals. In fact, you’re looking at five petals, each of which is deeply cleft.
There are at least two close look-alikes to chickweed. One is scarlet pimpernel. However, scarlet pimpernel’s flower is orange, not white, and it lacks the characteristic line of fine white hairs along the stem. Though not generally used in salads, it wouldn’t kill you if you added some scarlet pimpernel into a salad accidentally, though you might find it bitter. Another possible look-alike for beginners is the common spurge plant. Really, you should not confuse this one with chickweed, but when very young, beginners have picked and eaten the spurge. Spurge’s stem tends to be erect, not sprawling, and its leaves lack the sharp tip. Furthermore, if you break the stem of spurge you’ll see white sap, which is common in all the spurges (Euphorbia sps.). If you eat enough spurge you could vomit.
Chickweed is believed to have gotten its name from the practice of feeding the plant to chickens in Japan. In fact, all birds love this plant, and so will you!
Chickweed in the dried form can be seen at herb stores selling for between $15 and $20 a pound. It is used in herbal remedies and said to be one of the best bronchial decongestants, as well as a top-notch diuretic. Chickweed is also used externally to treat small cuts, burns, scratches and even poison oak. During the many Wild Food Outings I conduct, we have the opportunity to collect chickweed about half the year. Chickweed alone with salad dressing makes a great salad. Since I collect and eat my “weeds” rather than just rip them up and toss them in the trashcan, I consider them every bit as valuable as zucchini or tomatoes I might grow in a garden. I would not consider pouring powerful herbicides on my “weeds,” which are, in reality, thriving, healthy edibles and medicinal herbs. Yet that is what the majority of “us” do every time nature blesses us abundantly with acres and acres of “free food.” We regard it as a problem. We cut down or poison that “problem,” bundle it all and toss it into trash cans to be hauled away into landfills.
I also encourage the chickweed to grow in my yard. When I harvest some for a salad I do not uproot the entire plant, but simply pinch off what I need to leave the root intact. This way, even though chickweed is an annual, it will continue to grow and live a few months longer.
The wise person simply and lovingly picks the chickweed nature has provided… and eats it.
Use chickweed as you would use lettuce, in salads, tostadas, on sandwiches, burgers, etc.
TREE-STUMP CAFE LUNCH SPECIAL — a salad
Collect, clean and chop the following:
2 C. chickweed
1 C. Hedge mustard
1 C. Nasturtium leaves
Add Italian dressing to taste. Serves 3.
CHICKWEED DELUXE — a stew
2 quarts of fresh chickweed, chopped
4 Jerusalem artichokes, or 4 medium-sized potatoes
1 red onion, diced
1 C. New Zealand spinach, chopped
1 cup Nasturtium leaves and flowers
Add all the above to a covered pot, add water, and simmer until tender. Season with garlic powder, paprika and cayenne. Will serve five.
1 corn tortilla
1⁄3 cup shredded Swiss cheese
1 C. Chickweed
1⁄4 cup diced wild onion greens
Warm the tortilla in an oiled skillet and add the cheese. Once it is soft, cover with the chickweed and onions, and let cook just a few more minutes. Add hot sauce and serve with a jalapeno pepper (that’s where this gets the “Mama-mia” part of the name). Serves one.
CHARLES EATS HIS LUNCH ON THE MOUNTAIN TOP
1 slice whole wheat pita bread (the hollow type)
2 slices of cheese, your choice
3 or 4 thin salami slices
1⁄2 cup chickweed, rinsed, drained, diced
Onion to taste
This is simple. Just add everything to your hollow pita bread and enjoy it on any mountain top of your choice. Serves one.
Editors Note: A version of this article first appeared in the March 2015 print issue of American Survival Guide.