Chickweed and NettlesBruce Burnett May 1, 2016
Wild Spring Greens as Food and Medicine
Spring is a great time to watch your greens grow. The aesthetically beautiful Chickweed and potent Stinging Nettle are two great additions to your garden — and life — to incorporate this season. Watch the Chickweed blossom into beautiful star-shaped flowers, while producing a powerful punch of vitamins and minerals.
Stinging nettle is also filled with rich minerals and vitamins. Plant this one early in the season as Nettles are a terrific companion plant, helping other greens to reach their full potential.
If you don’t have a garden for planting these herbal gems, you can find them growing wild in fields and forests throughout Ontario.
How many medicines do you know of that are effective for a variety of ailments, taken internally or applied topically, have no drug interactions and can be used in unlimited doses? The simple, humble ubiquitous Chickweed (Stellaria media) is a bane to the unenlightened gardener, but a boon to the increasing number of progressive people who like to take responsibility for their own health. Plus it tastes good and is incredibly nutritious.
The major constituents of Chickweed are: ascorbic acid (vitamin C); beta-carotene (precursor to vitamin A); calcium; coumarins (which soothe the vascular system and may benefit migraine sufferers); genistein (a potent cancer fighter); gamma-linolenic acid (GLA – an omega-6 essential fatty acid); flavonoids (substances found in fresh vegetables and fruits which evidence suggests confer great health benefits including protection from heart disease and cancer); magnesium; niacin (vitamin B3); potassium; riboflavin (vitamin B2); rutin (a bioflavonoid that strengthens capillaries and is effective for bruises, varicose veins and haemorrhoids); iron; manganese (important for protein and fat metabolism and blood sugar regulation); silicon (an immune booster, anti-aging compound and promoter of cardiovascular health); thiamine (vitamin B1); and zinc. Chickweed also possesses antiviral and anti-microbial properties.
Chickweed grows as a low, loosely tangled mat of bright green stems and small oval leaves with tiny, star-shaped white flowers (hence the Latin name, Stellaria). The English name, Chickweed, comes from the fact that chickens love to eat this healthful plant — although it could just have easily been called rabbitweed or gooseweed. These little critters know a tasty tonic when they find it.
Herbalists use Chickweed as an astringent, carminative, demulcent, diuretic, expectorant, laxative, refrigerant (Traditional Chinese Medicine regards Chickweed as sweet, moist and cool) and vulnerary (wound healing).
A decoction of the whole plant is prescribed for internal use as a post-partum depurative (purifier), and emmenagogue (promotes menstruation). For this reason, British medical herbalist Andrew Chevallier, in his book Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine (Dorling Kindersley Limited, London; 2000), advises against taking Chickweed during pregnancy. Postpartum, the herb can be used to promote milk flow, and is also a circulatory tonic. Chickweed tea may be drunk to relieve bronchitis, coughs, hoarseness and other chest ailments.
Chickweed does not dry well because drying causes the loss of many of its therapeutic qualities. For a medicinal tea, pour one cup of purified or boiled spring water over two tablespoons of fresh Chickweed and steep for 10 minutes.
In the kitchen, fresh Chickweed is a nutritious and delicious addition to salads (it tastes a little like spinach). It can also be added to soups and stews. Throw some in a blender with your favourite juice (or even rice or nut milk) for an inexpensive and healthful green drink.
Chickweed for Skin Health
Topically, Chickweed is primarily used to treat eczema, minor skin wounds and rashes and varicose veins. It can be applied as a decoction, juice or made into an ointment or cream. As a poultice or an infusion added to the bath it has also proved effective in combating rheumatism.
When making Chickweed ointment or cream, the herb is particularly effective if combined with Marsh Mallow. Unfortunately this herb is not easy to find and only easy to grow if you live where the plant flourishes, which is primarily in a salt marsh or another damp spot close to the sea or an estuary.
Tender-handed stroke a nettle,
And it stings you for your pains;
Grasp it like a man of mettle,
And it soft as silk remains.
Recent tests in organic gardening have confirmed that Nettles (Urtica dioca) make great companion plants, helping to produce healthy vegetables such as broccoli, and bestowing qualities on tomatoes by impeding the fermentation process in the plant’s juices. The precise mechanism involved here has yet to be determined, but organic growers have noticed better keeping qualities in tomatoes grown alongside Nettles.
Nettles will increase the production of essential oil in peppermint and boost the potency of all nearby herbs. Nettles in your compost heap will not only add nutrients, but will also accelerate the breakdown of matter into robust humus.
Stinging Nettle is a perennial plant to zone two with a germination period of 10 to 14 days. It prefers full sun to partial shade and likes a slightly damp soil rich in nitrogen. The herb may be propagated by seed, cuttings or root division.
As a vegetable, nettles taste best when they’re young and tender, but for medicinal purposes the herb should be collected when the flowers are in bloom, anytime from June to September.
The aerial parts of the plant are rich in chlorophyll, indoles such as histamine and serotonin, acetylcholine, glucoquinones, minerals (iron, silica, potassium, manganese and sulfur), tannins and vitamins A and C. The herb is also a good source of protein and dietary fibre.
Because of their infamous sting, nettles require gloved hands and a long-sleeved shirt for harvesting. This disagreeable sting is caused by formic acid located on the surface of the fresh leaves and stems. When cooked or dried, the plant loses its sting.
This herb is astringent, diuretic, tonic and hypotensive (reduces blood pressure). Nettles strengthen and support the whole body.
Steamed, Nettles taste very much like spinach and the convention is that it is best to pick them when young.
Throughout Europe, Nettles are used as a spring tonic and general detoxifying remedy. In some cases of rheumatism and arthritis, nettles can be astoundingly successful.
Nettles are a specific remedy in cases of childhood eczema and are beneficial in all the varieties of this condition, especially in nervous eczema. They will combine well with figwort and burdock in the treatment of eczema. As an infusion, pour a cup of boiling water over one to two teaspoonfuls of the dried herb or herbs and leave to infuse for l0-l5 minutes. This should be drunk three times a day. As a tincture, take one to four ml. of the tincture three times a day.
As an astringent they may be used for nosebleeds or to relieve the symptoms wherever there is hemorrhage in the body, for example in uterine hemorrhage. Research into the therapeutic properties of nettle root in the US, Germany and Japan show promise for its use in the treatment of benign prostate hypertrophy (enlargement).
According to Master Herbalist, David L. Hoffmann, B.Sc., M.N.I.M.H., conditions that benefit from the use of Nettles include: diarrhea, dysentery, hemorrhoids, hemorrhages, fevers, gravel, inflammation of the kidneys, chronic diseases of the colon, eczema and cystitis.
Nettles are also antiallergenic. The herb is effective for hay fever, asthma, and skin problems due to allergies and insect bites. Ironically, nettle juice is a very good antidote for nettle stings.
Nettles make good feed for livestock. In northern Europe, nettles are mowed and fed to cattle, chickens and horses. For horses, the herb supplies albuminoid, an excellent conditioning protein, which gives the animals a sleek coat.
Chickweed Medley Salad
- 5 – 6 cups tender young Chickweed greens
- 4 oz Feta cheese, crumbled
- ½ cup toasted, slivered almonds, or substitute (optional)
- 1 clove garlic, minced or crushed
- 1 tsp grated fresh ginger
- ½ cup kalamari olives, sliced
- 1 tsp tamari sauce
- 1 Tbsp lemon juice
- 1 Tbsp apple cider vinegar
- ¼ cup olive oil (or more to taste)
1) Toss Chickweed greens, olives, feta cheese, almonds and fruit (if applicable) together.
2) Mix up the garlic, lemon juice, ginger, olive oil, salt and pepper in a separate cup or bowl.
3) Add dressing just before serving.
4) Be creative with this recipe and add ingredients of your choice. Be aware this salad does not keep well. Make only what you are going to eat when serving.
Chickweed Plus Herbal Ointment
- 1 Tbsp of fresh Chickweed
- ½ Tbsp of fresh Calendula petals
- ½ Tbsp of fresh, crushed Chamomile flowers
- 2 cups of distilled or purified water
- 1 cup of extra virgin olive oil
- 1 oz of beeswax, grated or finely chopped
- 15-16 drops of Fryer’s Balsam (tincture of benzoin)
- 6 drops of lavender essential oil
1) Make a decoction of the herbs by simmering them in the water until it has been reduced to half a cup. Strain out the herbs in a fine mesh strainer or cheesecloth. Allow any sediment in the decoction to settle before decanting and straining again to ensure no sediment gets into your ointment.
2) Melt the beeswax in the olive oil in a double boiler. Add the herbal decoction to the olive oil and beeswax and continue to slowly stir until all the moisture has evaporated. This is evident when the spluttering stops. Test the consistency by pouring a small amount of the mixture into a jar. If it doesn’t solidify when cool, add a little more beeswax. When you’re happy with the consistency, add the Fryer’s Balsam and essential oil. Mix well before pouring into small, darkly tinted glass jars. Allow to cool and solidify before placing lids on the jars.
3) Another method — and preferable for retaining active ingredients in my opinion — is to make an infusion of the herb directly in the oil using a hot pot. This method is more complex, messy and better when using dried herbs. When using either method, it is vital to ensure that all moisture has been cooked out of the concoction to prevent the development of rancidity and mould.
4) Finally, when harvesting Chickweed or any other wild herb, ensure that the area has not been sprayed with herbicide or pesticide. Also, don’t be greedy. Don’t pull the herb up by the roots, and always leave enough for the plant to regenerate and re-seed.
Nettle and Spinach Soup
- 2 packed cups of fresh nettle leaves
- 1 onion, chopped
- 1 Tbsp butter (or a healthy cooking oil such as coconut)
- 1 cup whole milk or cream (or milk substitute such as nut milk — I do not recommend soy milk)
- 1/3 cup Romano or Parmesan cheese, grated
- 2 cups chicken, vegetable or herb bouillon
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- 4 small-medium potatoes, peeled and chopped
- 2 packed cups fresh spinach
- Sour cream or yogurt (optional)
- Chopped chives and fresh parsley for garnish
1) Sauté the onion gently in the butter in a large saucepan until translucent.
2) After rinsing the spinach and nettle leaves, add them to the pan along with the stock and the potatoes. Cook for about 20 minutes until the potatoes are soft.
3) Add the milk or cream and cheese. Allow to cool then blend in batches. Return to the saucepan and reheat. Check for seasoning, adding the salt and fresh ground black pepper as needed.
4) Serve hot garnished with the fresh chives and parsley. Add a blob of sour cream or yogurt to the soup when serving if desired.