Common chickweed, native to Europe, has been introduced nearly worldwide and is a familiar garden weed in Missouri. It forms spreading mats on the ground and has small flowers with 5 petals, each deeply lobed making it look like 10.
Chickweed is an annual or short-lived perennial that is highly variable in form. Plants typically start out compact but soon branch abundantly at the base and spread more loosely. Depending on situation, it may grow upward or spread out across the ground. The plant ranges from glabrous (hairless) to slightly hairy.
Leaves are opposite, mostly hairless, ovate to elliptic, rounded to nearly truncate (straight and perpendicular to the stem) at the base, angled or slightly tapered at the tip. Basal and lower stem leaves have leaf stems; middle and upper stem leaves are sessile.
Flowers are small, in terminal clusters or solitary, with 5 green sepals at the base (the sepals at least as long as the petals and resemble leaves). Petals 5, white, deeply lobed so that each looks like 2, giving the appearance of 10 petals. Each flower has 3 styles. Blooms January–December; potentially all year long.
Fruits are capsules containing 10–20 seeds or more.
Similar species: Five species of Stellaria, called chickweeds or stitchworts, have been recorded for Missouri. Common chickweed is the most common and widespread. Botanists use leaf shape and hairiness and details of the flowers and seeds to distinguish among them.
Missouri also has 10 species of mouse-ear chickweeds (genus Cerastium). Of these, the two most common and widespread in the state are common mouse-ear chickweed (C. fontanum) and nodding chickweed, or powderhorn (C. nutans). Mouse-ear chickweeds can be distinguished by their being sparsely to densely pubescent with sometimes woolly hairs, some of the hairs sometimes being gland-tipped and feeling sticky. Looking more closely at the small flowers, mouse-ear chickweeds have 5 (not 3) styles.
Stem length: to more than 2 feet.
Scattered to common throughout the state, more abundantly south of the Missouri River.
Habitat and Conservation
Occurs on banks of streams, rivers, and spring branches, bases and ledges of bluffs, sloughs, and bottomland forests; also pastures, crop fields, fallow fields, ditches, lawns, gardens, roadsides, and disturbed areas. Usually found in moist, rich soils in disturbed habitats; when it occurs in native habitats, it is usually in places, like stream banks, that experience periodic disturbance such as flooding.
Common chickweed is one of the most widely distributed weeds in the world. European explorers and colonists carried it with them, either purposefully or accidentally, and now the plant is widespread.
Nonnative wildflower, introduced from Europe long ago. Widespread globally. Usually considered a weed. Edible.
Chickweed is a wild edible plant you can feel good about eating, as it is nonnative and most people consider it a weed. Young, tender shoots are the best to eat raw as a salad green or cooked like spinach as a potherb.
Common chickweed is much like common dandelion, henbit, shepherd’s purse, and English plantain, all of which came to our continent along with Europeans as they explored and colonized the world centuries ago. It’s hard to imagine what our country, our fallow fields, our yards, our roadsides would look like without them.
Chickweed has been cultivated as a forage plant for chickens, hence the name.
Chickweed has been used by herbalists to treat a variety of ailments.
Because common chickweed is a relatively small, shallow-rooted annual, and it doesn’t tend to invade and degrade healthy natural habitats like prairies, woodlands, and wetlands, it is usually not considered invasive.
Chickweed and other fast-growing annuals quickly colonize bare ground. They are often called pioneer species or "weedy" plants. These plants are the first step in ecological succession: if you start with a barren landscape, they are some of the first plants to become established. Eventually, different plant communities develop. Gradually, the landscape returns to to a fully vegetated climax community of perennial wildflowers, trees, and other enduring plants.
A wide variety of bees, flies, butterflies, wasps, and other insects visit the flowers for nectar, pollen, or both.
The foliage of chickweed is eaten by many kinds of insects, too, including the moth caterpillars of the chickweed geometer (Haematopis grataria), venerable dart (or dusky cutworm, Agrotis venerabilis), and drab brown wave (Lobocleta ossularia). The pale tortoise beetle (Cassida flaveola) is a leaf beetle that chews on chickweed and its relatives.
Many kinds of birds, including sparrows, finches, doves, and ruffed grouse, eat the seeds.
Deer, rabbits, woodchuck, and other herbivorous mammals browse the plants.