Chickweed Weed Walk
Excerpt from pages 116-118
Put on your warm coat, and boots, and your hat, and come out with me to pick some chickweed. Yes, it is the middle of January! No, I’m not crazy. The sky has cleared and we’ll have some good foraging down where the river widens and seeps toward the sea.
I have the basket and some scissors. There’s no dirt to wash off if we carefully cut an inch away from the ground, like giving the plants a haircut. Come on, already; you won’t need gloves. It’s warm out today.
I love chickweed. It’s my favorite salad green. And not just because I can harvest it fresh all winter long. The taste is exceptional: clean, bright green without a trace of bitterness, but just a little salty , Umm !
Umm…smell the fresh sea air. There’s our supper. Ready to be cut. Snip, snip. We’ll be like the hairdresser for the little star lady. Our haircut will encourage the chickweed to branch many times and provide that many more tender shoots for our next cutting.
And our cutting keeps the leaves large. Well, large for chickweed. I see your point, but, look, some of these are nearly as big as your thumbnail. In a, harsher habitat, the leaves don’t get any bigger than your tiny toenail.
But large or small, all the leaves are an even, bright, clear green, absolutely smooth, and growing in opposed pairs. See how the leaf stalks get longer and longer as they get farther and farther from the growing tip?
Old chickweed is mostly stalk and not as edible as the tender leafy parts. Snip the growing leafy tops off, like this. And leave behind the soiled, stalky stuff. Lay it in the basket in a neat bundle, with all the stalks parallel. That makes it easier to chop for salad when we get back to the kitchen, No fuss, no mess, no dirt, no tedious washing.
Look at this line of hairs that runs up the stem. Just one tiny line of hairs on an otherwise totally smooth plant. That’s not a second line of hairs; this one merely jumped to the other side there at the leaf node. It goes around to each of the four directions, as in a prayer to the four elements: fire, water, earth, and air.
You almost need a magnifying glass to see the hairs, unless you hold the stem to catch the light, just so, making the hairs visible.
Take another look at the stem. See how it barely rises from the ground? Not that it exactly creeps or lies on the ground, but chickweed can be said to grow out instead of up. There are so many branches to the stalk, and more here than usual, since my cutting increases the branching, that a single plant seems to grow like a super-nova, radiating out and up.
Pick one and feel the slightly swollen joints. Crush it, and note the juiciness. This is such a great plant to use as a poultice. Nothing like it for juicing things up and cooling off heat at the same time!
An inconspicuous plant, say most writers: smooth, green, small, low, no strong taste, and not very active medicinally. Inconspicuous, if you mean easily overlooked. Many a lawn owner is totally unaware of chickweed at play in the grass. What a feast of food and fun and fantasy they could have if the lawn mower didn’t work.
Few town dwellers notice it either, though I’ve never been in a city yet, except in the tropics, that wasn’t graced with chickweed. I was picking and eating chickweed off a curbside in West Berlin just a few months ago, much to the dismay of my German companions. At first, that is. A few salads later, they wanted to help me gather some more!
Most gardeners notice it. Small stature seems only to encourage our little star lady to a glorious abandon of abundance in vegetable or flower bed, thus bringing many an unladylike gardener’s curse to little star lady’s ears. As any annual does, chickweed focuses her energy on producing as many viable seeds as possible.
Here’s a seed capsule. Not much more visible than the rest of the plant. Maybe that’s why wise women love the little star lady so: she’s as invisible as they are.
The seeds in here will ripen even if you cut the plant or uproot it. If I pick a lot of chickweed and leave it in the refrigerator (it’s one wild green that keeps well), within a few days the bottom of my storage bag is covered in a layer of tiny yellow-orange seeds that have ripened and fallen loose.
With your magnifying lens you’ll see the teeth on the seed capsule. When the seed capsule gets wet, these teeth swell, and keep the capsule tightly shut. When the sun and wind dry the capsule, the teeth loosen and allow the wind to shake the seeds free.
These patches of chickweed seem almost perennial, they self-sow so readily and constantly. But we don’t curse the chickweed; we bless it, and accept its blessing of abundant green.
Few patches of chickweed can outproduce my appetite for it! Last year I served chickweed salad to thirty women on spring equinox from this very patch. When I don’t have that much help, I can eat quarts of chickweed a day all by myself .
Sometimes the chickweed’s already flowering by spring equinox. Wouldn’t you be surprised in this little plain plant had flashy flowers? Don’t worry, it doesn’t. Unless you use a magnifying lens.
Magnified, the pattern of delicate deeply-divided petals, each set off by a pointed green sepal, becomes a whirling mandala, a glittering star. The symmetry of the flower vibrates and the five white, cleft petals become ten slivers of light in your eye. The sepals’ five-pointed under-star of shimmering green adds to the effect.
There you are peering through a magnifying glass at a tiny flower, and suddenly you’re having an experience of cosmic proportions. That’s the little star lady for you!
This patch of chickweed is out in the sun, so it dies early, as soon as the days lengthen and the heat builds. But there’s a patch back at the house, under the roses. That patch doesn’t give many greens in winter, but it stays so shady and moist that stars bloom there almost all year.
The little star lady prefers cool, rich, moist soil. Along misty coasts, deep in mountain valleys, and even in cities, she has no shortage of likely habitats.
She thrives here, along my quiet strand, though not as lushly as I once saw her growing.
I was in northern California, along the coast. The wind was fierce, so my walk that day wasn’t far. Just far enough to find a little stream that ran down to the sea, spreading herself out and out as she came, and smoothing the way for acres of nearly knee-high chickweed (with a healthy bit of miner’s lettuce mixed in to add to the bounty).
I would have lain down on the ground and eaten my way to bliss, but it was too wet. With my outer shirt as a makeshift carrying basket, and my ever-handy pocket knife, I cut enough to feast on for days to come, and plenty for sharing the earth’s bountiful gifts with my chickweed-loving friends, too.
And why don’t we do the same? Though we have a proper basket and won’t have to undress to hold onto our chickweed! The days are short. Let’s cut our salad and go have a cup of hot cider by the wood stove.