Common Chickweed is an introduced and naturalized annual or winter annual with stems either reclining or ascending with much branching. The stem is 4-angled and has a single line of whitish hairs along each stem internode. Stems may have a reddish tint and grow from 4 to 16 inches long.
Leaves are opposite, with the lower leaves stalked and the upper stem leaves usually stalkless. Leaf stalks (petioles) can also have the same hair as the stems. The leaves are usually green, ovate to broadly elliptic in shape, somewhat triangular looking, with rounded to wedge shape bases, with tips that are gradually pointed or sharply tapering to a point. The underside is pale in color with fine short hairs. There is one prominent central vein. Leaves become larger near the top of the plant, but usually not more than 1/2 inch long.
The inflorescence is a terminal cyme of 5 to many stalked flowers. Most plants in MN will have 5 or fewer flowers per cluster. Solitary flowers also arise from the upper leaf axils. Flower stalks have fine hair. The inflorescence is subtended by a pair of small leaf-like bracts.
The flowers are very small, 2 to 5 mm in diameter (about 3/16 inch), 5-parted, with sepals that are longer than the petals. The sepals have an obscure mid-rib, are lanceolate in shape with pointed tips, rough margins and erect hair on the outer surface, which is usually glandular. Sepals are 4.5 to 5 mm long. Sepal size is important in separating some species of Stellaria. Some flowers may lack petals, but that is unusual in this species, and when petals are present, they are shorter than the sepals, white, and so deeply lobed that they appear as 10 petals. They are narrowly oval with rounded tips. Stamens number 3 to 5 usually (up to 8), with yellowish anthers turning reddish-violet at maturity. Stamens arise from a central greenish nectar disc. Styles number 3, curve outward at the tips, becoming curled. Flowers usually close in darkness and do not open in wet weather.
Seed: Fertilized flowers produce a cylindrical hairy seed capsule, which will contain numerous rough reddish-brown, round to kidney shaped seeds, up to 1.3 mm in diameter, with tubercles - these are broader than tall and give the rough appearance. The capsule opens by 6 valves at the top and seeds are shaken out by the wind. Fertilization of the flowers is primarily autogamous, that is, the flower self pollinates. Small flies are able to cross-pollinate flowers also.
Habitat: Common Chickweed grows from a slender taproot and finer fibrous roots. It is found in waste places, disturbed ground, open woodlands. It spreads by reseeding, but stems may root if in contact with the soil. Soils need to be moist to mesic, with full to partial sun.
Names: The current genus name, Stellaria, is from the Latin referring to 'star-like' which is a generalization of the appearance of flowers in this genus with the white petals offset against the green sepals. The species name, media, in 1789 means 'intermediate' or 'middle' referring to this species being, in size, between the two others noted in the next paragraph. The author names for the plant classification are as follows: First to classify in 1753 with the name Alsine media was - '(L.)' which refers to Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), Swedish botanist and the developer of the binomial nomenclature of modern taxonomy. His work was amended by ‘Vill.’ which refers to Dominique Villars (1745-1814) French botanist who described over 2700 plants, including this one, in Historie des plantes de Dauphine.
Comparisons: S. media is a variable species within a variable genus. The chickweeds are the most common weed on the planet. Besides hybridizations, there are enough variations within the species to sometimes make identification difficult. Geographic locations is sometimes, like here, a big help. There are two other species of Stellaria that are closely related: S. neglecta, the Greater Chickweed, and S. pallida, the Lesser Chickweed. S. neglecta has longer sepals - 5 to 6.5 mm - and 8 to 10 stamens. S. pallida has sepals 3 to 4 mm long and only 1 to 3 stamens, but stamens may be absent as this species can automatically self-pollinate, petals are usually absent and the plant is yellow-green. Neither species is found in Minnesota. Our closest look-a-like is in the Cerastium genus, C. fontanum, Mouse-ear Chickweed, but that species has 5 styles and usually 10 stamens.
Above: Several plants of Common Chickweed. Note the stalkless upper leaves. Drawing courtesy and © Flora of North America.
Below: An upper stem section showing the single line of white hair on the stem and seed capsules forming.
Below: 1st photo - The five deeply lobed white petals are set against the five larger green sepals which have long hairs on the margins. Note the large green nectary disc from which the stamens rise. 2nd photo - The underside of the leaves have short fuzzy hair
Below: 1st photo - A plant with a single flower. 2nd photo - side view of the flower head. 3rd photo - Reddish stem with upper leaf surface. Note the abruptly pointed leaf tip.
Below: The flattened rough surfaced seeds. The roughness is caused by raised tubercles on the surface. Tubercles usually are hollow and allow the seed to float or become airborne more easily. Photo ©Steve Hurst, USDA-NRCS Plants Database.
Common Chickweed is an introduced Eurasian species found in just less than one half the counties of Minnesota and these are widely scattered with most exceptions being in the SW and West side of the state. In North America the species is found throughout except the arctic regions.
There are 7 species of Stellaria found in Minnesota, 5 are native: S. alsine, Alsine Chickweed; S. borealis, Northern Starwort; S. crassifolia, Fleshy-leaved Starwort; S. longifolia; Long-leaved Chickweed; and S. longipes, Long-stalked Chickweed. There are 2 introduced: S. graminea, Lesser Stichwort; and S. media, Common Chickweed. S. longifolia is by far the most common followed by S. media. Common Chickweed was in the Garden in the early years, Martha Crone listed it on her 1951 census.
Ada George wrote in 1914 (Ref. #6b): "In spite of its frail appearance, this plant is probably the hardiest and the most persistent weed on earth. Its range nears the Arctic Circle, and the writer picked green and thrifty stems, bearing buds, flowers, and seeds, within a yard of a melting snowbank, during a "January thaw" of the present winter. The seed, though small, retains its vitality for many years."
Use and Medicinal Lore: The young leaves, when boiled, are said to be indistinguishable from spinach and used uncooked, with Dandelion leaves, make a nice salad. (Ref. #7). The fresh leaves of the plant were long used for medicinal purposes. Let's let two of the old Herbal writers explain:
Gerard wrote in his Herball of 1597 (Ref. #6a): "The leaves of chickweed boiled in water very soft, adding thereto some hogs greace, the powder of Fenugreek and Linseede, and a few rootes of Marsh Mallows, stamped to the form of a Cataplasma or pultus, taketh away the swellings of the legs, or any other part."
Culpeper wrote in The English Physician of 1652 (Ref.#4b): “The juice, or distilled water, is of much good use for all heats and redness in the eyes, to drop some thereof into them; as also in the ears, to ease pains in them; and is of good effect to ease pains from the heat and sharpness of the blood in the piles, and generally all pains in the body that arise of heat. It is used also in hot and virulent ulcers and sores in the privy parts, or on the leg, or elsewhere."
"Boil a handful of Chickweed, and a handful of red rose leaves dried in a quart of muscadine, until a fourth part be consumed; then put to them a pint of oil of trotter’s or sheep’s feet; let them boil a good while stirring them well; which being strained, anoint the grieved place therewith, warm against the fire, rubbing it well with one hand; and bind also some of the herb (if you will) to the place, and, with God’s blessing, it will help it in three times dressing.” He also included Gerard's comments within his discourse.
References: Plant characteristics are generally from sources 1A, 32, W2, W3, W7 & W8 plus others as specifically applied. Distribution principally from W1, W2 and 28C. Planting history generally from 1, 4 & 4a. Other sources by specific reference. See Reference List for details.
Identification booklet for most of the flowering forbs and small flowering shrubs of the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden. Details Here.
Friends of the Wild Flower Garden, Inc. Text and photos are by G. D. Bebeau unless otherwise credited. "www.friendsofthewildflowergarden.org"