At this time of year (December), many foragers in our part of the world will have given up on harvesting from the wild, save for gathering a few pine needles for tea or berries that are still hanging around. I am mainly thinking about Barberries, that can be found decorating the leafless (yet spiky) stems of the bushes, which reminds me that this is actually the ideal season for gathering those power packed berries - I’ll post about that tomorrow.
Over many years of being a determined, year-round forager, I have learned how to find something to harvest at almost any time of the year. We are often half way through January before the last of the regular plants finally give up. Yet there are those hardy creatures out there that seem to be able to survive almost anything. One of these super hardy species is a little, often ignored gem, called Chickweed.
This tasty morsel with the romantic genetic name of Stellaria ("Among the Stars"), is a nutrient rich and medicinal plant. In fact, it is my second favorite winter green, after Wintercress (which I will also tell you about, in the near future).
There is species of Chickweeds called Cerastium fontanum, or Mouse Ear Chickweed, that has furry little leaves that resemble actual mouse ears. It is also edible and medicinal like its cousins.
As well as having a pleasant taste, Chickweeds are an excellent source of vitamins A, D, B complex and rutin, as well as iron, calcium, potassium, phosphorus, zinc, manganese, sodium, copper, and silica. It is an excellent winter source of vitamin C.
Although the plants have small leaves, they are inclined to grow in clumps, which can easily be harvested. I tend to use clippers or a knife to cut away the tops of the plants. This way, we may get several crops from the same clump. I have often harvested the plant throughout the entire winter. Sometimes, it has required digging through the snow, or breaking through the ice to get to it.
Once harvested, the greens can be used in salads, in wraps, as a garnish or scattered into soups and stews just before serving. It makes an excellent pesto, either combined with basil or used alone. The greens can be turned into a tincture, made into an infused oil or dried for use in teas. I have found that the best way to make the oil of Chickweed, is to wilt the plant for a couple of days first, before using it in the hot oil method:
The chopped plant is heated in oil (in a double boiler or crock pot) for up to 12 hours (can be left longer).
I have been aware for some time that Chickweed is a cooling herb, but I was delighted to find that a strong tea, used as a wash is very effective in calming rashes. I have found that combining that with a decoction of Lemon balm makes them both more effective.
This same wash can be used to treat serious skin conditions, such as ulcers, carbuncles, boils, cysts, blisters and other inflammatory conditions
For a more permanent form of application, it is better to make an oil or a salve. This method extracts the GLA from the plant. Gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), is the much valued ingredient in evening primrose seeds. GLA is an essential fatty acid well known for treating menopausal symptoms. It also helps prevent hardening of the arteries, heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, PMS, multiple sclerosis and high blood pressure.
There is no reason why you shouldn’t use Chickweed oil as an ingredient in salad dressings, or to sauté your mushrooms. Combining food and medicine