Know Your Chickweed

There are a number of weeds that germinate in the fall, both grasses and broadleaf.  They are called winter annuals because they can germinate in October and November, then over-winter as small plants until warmer weather in March triggers growth, followed by flowers, then seeds.  By summer the plants often die back October chickweed in Ann's gardenor go fibrous.

One of these winter annual broadleaf weeds is common chickweed, Stellaria media, sometimes called starweed or tongue grass.  It is a low-growing, succulent plant that can form large mats over the ground in the spring.  The branched stems, with rows of hairs, trail along the ground and can root at each of the swollen nodes.  The oval, paired leaves are cool and smooth to the touch and the showy deeply cut white spring flowers can be solitary or clustered at the tips of the stems.  Tiny flat seeds are formed in oval, one-celled capsules and can germinate at just above 32 degrees F.  Seedlings can survive the severest frost and can stay green under snow.

A native to Europe, the leaves, stems and flowers have long been used as herbal folk medicine for skin conditions, however contact dermatitis may develop in those with allergies so caution is indicated.  Records show it was sold by street vendors in Victorian London as food for pet birds and it is consumed by many animals including wild birds, sheep, rabbits, horses, cows, geese, pigs and, of course, chickens, thus the name ‘chickweed.’

As a plant it can serve a purpose, but for most gardeners and farmers, it is a weed. The battle with chickweed can never be won in North America but fortunately it’s not a hard fought battle for me. One interesting fact about chickweed is that it is found growing in rich, moist, fertile soils and does not tolerate poor soil or dry soil or hot sunny spots.  So sadly, chickweed is quite well behaved in my yard, which means my soil needs work.

chickweed leavesTo weed by hand, I simply pull the tender succulent in the cool spring while still in flower and before it sets its seeds.  The roots are very fragile and quite shallow and compact and the plant pulls up easily. If you use chemicals, pre-emergents are the best way to control these weeds.  Use them now before you see the weeds as they work on the germinating seeds.  Post-emergent herbicides for broadleaf weeds are not as effective in the fall since winter annuals are beginning their dormant stage.  Use these in the spring when weeds are actively growing.

Although it can be a pest in our gardens, it’s nice to think of weeds as part of the tapestry of nature.  They can make life interesting and it’s worth knowing a bit about them before we yank them from the ground.

Do you know your Creeping Charlie?  Click here.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

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7 thoughts on “Know Your Chickweed

  1. Curses on thee, chickweed! By the way, I get help for my lawn from Bay Country Lawns. Their applications are supposedly a bit more environmentally friendly. I’d be interested in hearing if GCV agrees.

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    • Janice, Well… I have heard of Bay Country Lawns that advertise organic pre-emergent treatment. Are they owned by TruGreen/Terminix? I don’t have an answer for you on the chemicals they use. You’ll have to do a little sleuthing to find the answer to your inquiry about Bay Country Lawns. Good luck.
      The GCV does promote gardening conservation and the protection of our natural resources but it has not issued a statement on this so I am speaking for myself. As a master gardener, we learned there were ways to control weeds organically but some are time consuming and others are tricky: 1. Hand Weed 2. Corn Gluten Meal (use as pre-emergent for seeds. Don’t use if you’ve seeded grass in the same area.) 3. Solarization. Clear plastic on a hot sunny day. 4. vinegar with a little sticky dish soap for weeds. Can spray on for pre-emergent. Master Gardeners do issue information on chemical weedkillers as well so they are not totally organic. Ann

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  2. Pingback: Weeds! | Breaking New Ground – Zone 5

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