Name: Chickweed (Stellaria media)
Otherwise known as: Starwort, Alsine Media, Passerina
Habitat: An annual sometime perennial member of the Caryophyllaceae family growing up to 40cm in rich cultivated soil in Europe and Asia. It has feeble, many branched stems that trail across the ground and support tiny, opposed, oval leaves that bear tiny white flowers in the axils. The whole aspect of the plant is delicate; Chickweed is easily set back by heavy rainfall.
What does it do: Chickweed is probably best known as being enjoyed by free-range fowl. Gerard informs us ‘little birds in cadges are refreshed (especially Linnets) are refreshed when they loath their meat, whereupon it was called of some Passerina’.
Medieval herbalists held the plant in high esteem and used mostly in the form of ointments and poultices. It was a standard remedy for carbuncles, boils and abscesses when the boiled plant would be enclosed in muslin and attached to the affected part after it was cleansed with the residual water. Gerard added Chickweed to pig lard and create a bright green soft unguent… ‘soothing good for piles and festering scabs’.
Culpepper suggested bruising the plant and collecting the juice to apply with cloths or sponges to the skin around the area of the liver, and as they dry apply fresh ‘it doth wonderfully temper the heat of the liver, and is effectual for all impostumes and swellings whatsoever’. Scottish matrons rubbed the washed stems over the face to remove freckles.
Chickweed is rich in vitamins A, B and C and contains calcium and potassium. Modern herbal practitioners recommend it be applied for eczema, psoriasis, other forms of itching and inflamed skin. It draws splinters and sooths rheumatic joints and decoctions are drunk in country regions as a relief for constipation and cystitis.
In Chinese medicine a sister plant Stellaria alsine is used to treat fevers and snakebite.
Alexander McCowan is author of The World’s most Dangerous Plants published by Lulu and Amazon