Common chickweed, Stellaria media, L.
Other Latinate binomial: Alsine media, L.
Star names: Starweed, Starwort, Star chickweed
Chicken names: Star (again)/ Nodding chickweed, Chickwittles, Chickwhirtles, Chicken weed, Clucken weed/ wort, White birdseye
Other names: Winterweed, Satin flower, Tongue grass, Skirt buttons
Confusing names: Stitchwort which usually applies to narrow leafed cousins such as Little starwort, Stellaria graminea, Indian chickweed which usually applies to Carpetweed, Mollugo verticillata.
Other plants given confusing “chickweed” names: Mouseear chickweed, Cerastium vulgatum, L.; Red or Poison chickweed, usually called Scarlet pimpernel, Anagallis arvensis, L.; Whorled or Indian chickweed, more usually called Carpetweed, Mollugo verticillata, L.
Geography: U.S., Canada, Asia, and Europe.
USDA Plant Hardiness Zones: 3-10.
It spreads vigorously to steal territory. Its weedy arsenal includes:
- an “allelopath”, or chemical that poisons other nearby plants.
- Forms up to 15,000 seeds per plant, a plant can repeat bloom 2-3 times, it takes only 5-7 weeks from germination to bloom, and hardy seeds remain viable up to 40 years in the soil seedbank.
- Superior distribution system: Sticky flowers can adhere to passersby and spread seeds, seeds survive salt-water (up to 90 days), benefit from intestinal passage, fly in the wind, and ants transport seeds to their nests. This can create 2 to even 5 generations per season.
- Elastic stems that stretch before they break.
- Lower stem nodes can form adventitious roots when their nodes touch the ground.
- Shallow roots form quickly, creating mats that can starve out other plants, and that can easily re-establish themselves if pulled and left on the ground.
- Nectar attracts pollinators, wind spreads pollen and it can fertilize itself, even if unopened.
- Can accumulate toxic levels of nitrates which cause digestive disorders in mammal foragers.
- As a small, low growing, shade lover it hides until it forms large communities.
- A winter growth pattern that allows it to survive when competitors cannot.
- It hosts aphids, nematodes and rusts that spread fungal parasites, fir broom rust, and viruses.
- It resists herbicides, but it tempts otherwise organic gardeners to use them, since it spreads so widely.
But it is also edible– both by us and by many critters. It’s my favorite edible weed and needs little to make it tasty. It has medicinal benefits, as an anti-rheumatic and diuretic, to name a few. It adds nitrogen to the soil and controls erosion, especially in moist shady sites and it retains moisture in lighter soils that may dry up.
As it works well to accumulate nitrates, it also signals that the soil needs more nitrogen. It competes best where calcium levels drop relative to magnesium levels and where low humus levels and clay or sticky, fine soils deter cultivars. It usually indicates moist, shady soil—so you can limb up trees or cut down on irrigation to deter it a bit. It does feed the soil, even as it grabs territory from other plants, but as an “allelopathic” plant, that inhibits the growth of other plants, it provides its best benefit after removal. Since it has naturalized here it lives in harmony in the wild eco-system. Alas, it invades cultivated gardens to an alarming extent in the cool season, since it will also flourish happily in the most fertile garden beds, especially where the soil is uncovered, recently broken (from planting), or where the mulch is too thin.
Picture 1: It radiates outward from its crown to steal territory and it can root adventitiously when lower nodes rest on the ground. Hairless leaves are shaped like spoons or tongues as if to indicate its edibility.
Common Chickweed, Stellaria Media, L.
Picture 2: Stems are lightly hairy on one side only and have a surprising strong elastic core inside.
Picture 3: Tiny flowers (pictured against my open palm for scale) grow singly or sometimes form
“cymes”, or small clusters where central flowers open first, at the tip of branches.