Common chickweed–lots of it this spring

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I decided to give common chickweed (Stellaria media), seen above, a big bad 10 in my weeding hierarchy this spring. It is big, thick, lush, and getting ready to bloom and go to seed simultaneously. According to a Penn State Extension fact sheet, each chickweed plant produces 2,500 to 15,000 seeds, which ripen 5 to 7 weeks after the parent plant germinates. When they ripen in warm weather, they are not dormant and can sprout immediately for another round.

A word about my weeding hierarchy strategy. Last year, I was so optimistic as to embark on a 7-year weeding project at the end of which my gardens will be weed free. Ha. Maybe not. But the concept is not totally foolhardy. The more seeds eliminated from top soil, the fewer weeds. A worthy endeavor, although chickweed seems overwhelming just now.

To make my weeding project a little less daunting in general, I devised this idea of a weed hierarchy. A weed given a 10 must receive immediate attention, lots of it, while a nice little wildflower weed with maybe a 1 or 2 designation can be passed by more often, or perhaps pulled only when I’m stooped over anyway, pulling its more sinister neighbor. If a gardener doesn’t play games with weeds, she will likely start feeling overwhelmed and just quit trying.

Last spring, I thought the cute little chickweed rated a 1 or a 2. Later in the season, I upped that to a 3. But nothing to really worry about. Chickweed is called a winter annual, meaning that it appears in the fall, overwinters, and is ready to grow in early spring. Last year, March was extremely cold with ice and snow into April. Chickweed didn’t get much opportunity for an early spring start. This winter, conversely, was quite mild with only a few weeks of extreme cold and very little snow. December was warm. March was warm. Lots of time for chickweed to get an early start. And it did.

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Above is a photo of its luxurious growth under a blueberry bush where the ground was left bare. Weeds of the Northeast reports that chickweed reproduction is only by seed, with seeds usually germinating in early spring and again in late summer, and that dead plant parts do not persist in the case of chickweed. I take this to mean that the plants will not rejuvenate themselves from roots or stems left behind in the soil, like creeping Charlie or mugwort will. At least, I’m operating under that assumption until I observe otherwise. So. I’m raking up chickweed in areas with well-worked soil. I’m digging chickweed with a garden fork in firmer soil, and I’m scraping chickweed with a collinear hoe when it’s nestled in close to desirable plants.

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The little star-like white flowers (hence the name stellaria) are just now appearing. The flowers have 5 petals, but each petal is indented to such an extent that the 5 petals are easily mistaken for 10. Notice the 2 seed pods with the flowers above. Lunch for a robin. I’m still throwing all this lush green stuff into the compost pile, but with the seeds forming, it’s probably best to start sending it curbside in trash cans for municipal pickup.

IMG_1098Common chickweed has small oval leaves that are opposite, attached by hairy petioles (stalks of leaves), as seen above. The main stems can be as long as 15 inches, are widely branched, and have noncontinuous single lines of white hairs growing between petioles, again, as seen above. The main stems are limp and prostrate or only slightly erect. Richard Mabey, in Weeds: In Defense of Nature’s Most Unloved Plants, describes chickweed as a small, drab, creeping plant. He recalls a time when weak, unathletic British children were nicknamed “weeds” by their bullying schoolyard peers, who compared perceived feebleness and limp wrists with limp prostrate plants like chickweed and goosegrass. Today’s schoolyard bullies probably don’t have that familiarity with the characteristics of weeds, but they undoubtedly find other terms of derision.

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As seen above, the long, branching, prostrate stems can cover a fair bit of ground. According to the Penn State fact sheet, this is not always considered a bad thing. Chickweed is used in Rhine Valley vineyards and Scandinavian orchards as ground cover to prevent erosion, conserve water, and maintain constant soil temps. It’s a living mulch, a green manure. Good for orchards and vineyards, perhaps, but too much of a good thing for gardens. Under the blueberry bushes, chickweed might work out OK, but how far would its seeds spread if I let it grow. Hmm.

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Chickweed is used as a starter food for baby chicks, and so its common name. Familiar birds in the gardens, like robins  and doves, are partial to the seed, which is an early spring mainstay for them. When I think the robins scattered out in the fields of the park are looking for worms, they may actually be foraging for chickweed seeds. More robins are visiting my garden this spring. The robin above is in a patch of grass, wood chips, creeping Charlie, clover, and chickweed. Notice the tiny, star-like white flowers in the lower left corner of the photo. Chickweed for sure. But I’m not sure just what this robin is after. Maybe a worm even. I don’t know.

Chickweed can to made into a tea or added to a salad. I do not have personal experience cooking with chickweed. According to Sara Stein, in My Weeds, Edward Gibbon (1737-1797), the author of The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, ate many varieties of weeds in salads, including chickweed. Stein lists them all, including Japanese knotweed and pokeweed, and many others. Wow. As Stein points out, pokeweed can be poisonous, so double Wow, also Yikes.

Chickweed is native to Europe but is found in all parts of the world today, including Alaska and Iceland, as well as at high altitudes near the equator. According to Richard Mabey, chickweed has a long history. It is not unique in this respect. In fact, most historical references to chickweed seem to mention it in lists of weeds similar to it. Nothing special about chickweed, just that it’s been around for a long time. Below are a few tidbits from Mabey’s Weeds about lists that include chickweed.

Plant fossils were found in layers from the Old Stone Age (250,000 years ago) in a well 1,146 feet deep that was dug on Tottenham Court Road in London in 1877. The list of plant fossils includes chickweed.

In 1663, John Josselyn listed plants that appeared in New England after the English settlers arrived to farm and raise cattle. Chickweed made Josselyn’s list as Cheek-weed.

In 1945, Edward Salisbury, director of Kew Gardens, listed 126 opportunistic weed species to grow first on barren London bomb sites. Chickweed, one of the less glamorous familiars, as Mabey puts it, made Salisbury’s list.

You may wonder why I’m sitting around reading and writing about chickweed. If it’s such a threat to my garden, I should be out destroying it. Well, first of all, it’s windy, rainy, and cold today. It may even snow. A good day to be indoors looking out the window. And second, writing a post about chickweed gives me food for thought while I am out destroying it, or attempting to.

Here is what I’ve learned about chickweed. It has been around for a long time. Although it is a European native, it has traveled the world with settlers and emigrants, establishing itself wherever they cleared land to farm. It flourishes in disturbed places like bomb sites and bare spots in gardens. It’s food for wildlife and a possible green mulch for blueberries. It can be a nuisance. It’s good to eat.

I’m not as concerned about chickweed now as I was when I started this post. Perhaps it should be a 5 in my weed hierarchy. Perhaps I should concentrate on eradicating it from the vegetable garden and flower beds but leave it under the blueberry bushes, for example, where it is particularly lush, as can be seen in the photo below. If it grows only in bare spots, perhaps it can be contained by wood chips and competing plants. This can be a chickweed experiment.

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Richard Mabey, in a wonderful conclusion to his entertaining and informative book on weeds, writes that the role of weeds, what they do, is to fill empty spaces–a first stage of succession that stabilizes soil, conserves water, and shelters plants that come next. With our modern arsenal of mechanical and chemical weapons against weeds, we have forgotten, like schoolyard bullies, the characteristics of weeds, and the part they play in bringing life back to bomb sites, abused agricultural lands, construction upheavals, urban grime and neglect, and bare spots in our gardens.

The truth is, I’m never going to get rid of all of the chickweed this spring before those seed pods mature, so I may as well be philosophical about it. Sour grapes, of course, but also, possibly, new ideas about controlling weeds in my garden.

Guess I’ll made a salad, add some chickweed, lift a fork in salute to Gibbon, and ponder my weed strategy further. Like what to do about hairy bittercress (Cardamine hirsute) for example. But that’s for another post.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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