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 or 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.
To 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.
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Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester