Dear Readers, I have always been very fond of chickweed – it seems to grow where nothing else will, and yet its flowers are very beautiful when seen close up. It likes disturbed ground, and so will often grace the most unlikely pile of rubble. Its Latin name means ‘medium-sized star’, although ‘tiny star’ would be more appropriate.
This was one of the very first ‘weeds’ that I wrote about, and I still remember what a voyage of adventure those first explorations of my neighbourhood were. As I got to know the various plants, and where they grew, it felt as if a whole new world had opened up. It was like getting to know the neighbours, and indeed my strange behaviour when I was weed-hunting introduced me to many people who wanted to know what on earth I was doing with a field guide in one hand, a camera in the other and my nose two inches from a tiny plant. I am still searching for some ‘weeds’ that should be around, but that I’ve never seen – pellitory-of-the-wall springs to mind. It’s a London plant, but I’ve never seen it in East Finchley. I shall have to go further afield, clearly.
And finally, a poem by Ukrainian-American poet Ilya Kaminsky. The chickweed mentioned here is probably not ‘our’ chickweed, but I love the poem all the same.
This, officers, is common chickweed,
cousin of a prickly sow thistle.
If you lean your ear
to her stem
you can hear
– Ilya Kaminsky
And now, let’s see what I had to say about chickweed back in 2014.
When I was growing up, we had a blue budgerigar called Fella. He lived in a cage on our sideboard for his entire life. For most of the time, he seemed to be happy enough, as far as we could tell, although I suspect that keeping a single bird when, in his native Australia, he would have been a member of a flock thousands strong was tantamount to cruelty. Still, these were days when most people didn’t think about these things: we did our best to be kind to the animals that we kept, without ever considering whether we should have kept them at all.
Every so often, Fella would flap his wings frantically, sending a cloud of feathers and bird shit all over the carpet and driving the dog into a frenzy of barking.
‘He’s having a mad half-hour’, we would say, trying to shush the dog and sweep up the debris.
But what I remember is that occasionally, I would bring Fella some Chickweed from the garden. I remember the tilt of his head as he pulled it through the bars, the look of concentration on his face as he peeled off the leaves, the way that he used his beak with great gentleness and delicacy. In such a stultifying life, I wonder if the Chickweed was a highpoint, something that gave him a sense of the world outside the bars, a tiny piece of the wild that he would never experience.
The Chickweed is coming into flower again at the bottom of the street trees on my road. It forms a kind of green ruffle, covering the chicken bones from the KFC and the cigarette ends. The leaves are so green, the flowers so tiny and star-like that it seems like a last taste of spring in the midst of October. The plant is a member of the same family as Ragged Robin and Red Campion, and, as you might expect from its name, it is popular with chickens as well as budgerigars.
In the spring, Chickweed is considered good eating by humans too, and may turn up amongst the salad leaves at fancy restaurants. It’s also the foodplant of the caterpillars of this beautiful moth:
Chickweed also has a reputation for being an anti-inflammatory, especially when turned into an ointment. The water in which Chickweed has been boiled is said, when sipped, to be a cure for obesity, and can also help with the symptoms of rheumatism.
In her wonderful website Plant Lives, Sue C.Eland describes how Chickweed undergoes what is known as ‘The Sleep of the Plants’ – at night, the leaves curl over any new shoots to protect them from the cold, like a chicken snuggling her chicks under her wings.
Chickweed also has a line of hairs on its stem that all point in one direction. These channel dew into a pair of leaves where the water is absorbed and helps to hydrate the plant in times of drought – as the plant often grows in exposed, disturbed areas, this extra fluid must be very useful.
As we go on this journey of exploration together, I am constantly surprised by the memories that these plant and animal companions unearth, and what a new dimension being aware of them brings to my life. Going to the shops means pausing to see what is growing, and often involves a quick about-turn to collect a camera or a plant guide. Having a conversation with a neighbour may mean suddenly swivelling on a heel to watch an unfamiliar flock of birds pass overhead. The flora and fauna that surrounds me is giving me roots, helping me to find my home here. The least I can do is to acknowledge and to celebrate them, in all their surprising and inspiring variety.