Winter is a brilliant time for getting to know about edible weeds, as there’s an absolute abundance of weedy greens that flourish in the cooler, wet weather. In south-eastern Australia, leafy weeds to look out for include dandelion, sow thistle, native river mint, plantain, wild onion grass, oxalis, and wild brassica. Two of our favourite winter weeds are Chickweed and Hairy Bittercress.
Chickweed (Stellaria media)
Chickweed (Stellaria media) is a fast-growing, sprawling green plant, with teeny-tiny white starburst flowers and tender green leaves and stems. Chickweed – also known as Chickenwort, Birdweed, Common Chickweed, Starweed, Starwort and Winterweed – is an annual and perennial flowering plant that is native to Eurasia, but commonly found around the world.
Growing from seed and germinating in late autumn-early winter, Chickweed is grown as a vegetable crop, groundcover, and medicinal herbal remedy for both human and animal consumption. It is high in iron, making it a good addition to both animal and human diets, and it has long been used as a ‘cooling’ medicine for both pulmonary and skin complaints.
Hairy Bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta)
Hairy Bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta) is an annual, rapid-growing leafy weed that’s found in abundance around the world. Alternatively known as lambscress, landcress, hoary bittercress, springcress, flickweed, and shotweed, it also has the sweet Australian colloquial name of Lady’s Smock.
Like Chickweed, Hairy Bittercress germinates from seed in autumn, puts out luxuriant leafy growth throughout winter, and flowers all the way into mid-spring. Being part of the Brassicaceae family, it is related to rocket, radish, mustard and of course land- and water-cress, which you’ll recognise when you eat it – it has that similar peppery zing to it as these more cultivated Brassicas. It has been used as a salad green, pot-herb and cooked green, and is a gorgeous weed to use for decorating food.
An environmental caution:
Both of these weeds are considered as invasive species, and once established, they are almost impossible to eradicate. As such, the responsibility lies with individual foragers to ensure they do not spread the seed of these plants into areas other than where they were found. A good rule of thumb is to pick weedy greens before they have flowered: firstly, they’ll be less bitter and more tender, and secondly, they’ll be unlikely to spread seeds as you transport them. If that’s not possible, remove seed material from plants before carrying them away.
DISCLAIMER: The information here is intended as a guide to identifying and using wild weeds, and while every care has been taken to ensure all information is correct, it is important that foragers only eat things that they are themselves 100% certain of the ID of, and that they’re confident are free from contaminants. Referring to multiple guide sources to become accurate in this field is usually necessary, and it is always suggested that you learn from a reputable expert in person before you begin eating wild foods. Looking at a few photos online are NOT enough. 🙂
The Urban Nanna cannot and will not take responsibility for any person’s choice to eat any wild food they have foraged.
How to identify them:
Look for pale grass-green sprawling stems with pairs of ovate leaves and shallow root systems. Stems are round, quite soft and weak, but have a sturdy central vein that can be extracted by gently pulling apart the outer flesh. Stems grow up to 40cm long, branching significantly towards the base of the plant, but less so as they grow longer. Tiny white flowers grow from short stems at the end of stems. A single line of curved hairs grows along the otherwise smooth stems.
Leaves grow in opposite pairs at intervals along the stem and are ovate in shape, the lower ones with stalks. Both leaves and flower stems are tender, bruise easily, and stems exude a very slight amount of clear sap when broken.
Flowers are small and suspended from delicate green stalks at the end of stems. 5 petioles (petal coverings) are green and covered in soft hairs. 5 petals are white, and deeply split, making it appear that the flower has 10 petals. Stigma is pale yellow & stamens are reddish violet. There is no smell associated with this plant.
The best defining features of Chickweed are the single ridge of curved soft hairs growing along one side of the stem, and the sturdy central vein of stems. A traditional saying goes “If it has a comb like a chicken, and bones like a chicken, it’s Chickweed”.
Be careful not to confuse Chickweed with Scarlet Pimpernel (Anagallis arvensis) or Petty Spurge (Euphorbia peplus), both of which are relatively common weeds and most definitely NOT edible. Check out this page from Let’s Eat Weeds for more info.
Look for rosettes of dark green leaves with a thin but deep root system growing amongst pavers, gravel & structures in gardens, and in disturbed, damp soil in wasteland or suburban green spaces. Flowers grow centrally from straight stems up to 35ms tall and produce sequential upward-pointing seedpods that are very narrow, 2-3cm long, flattened, and explosively eject numerous small seeds when touched at maturity (giving them the common name Flickweed).
Leaves predominantly grow to 2-8cm long from a central base, and are pinnate (have opposite pairs) with 7-15 leaflets, the endmost being larger and more rounded than those in pairs. Leaves are sparsely scattered with short (0.2mm) hairs. Some leaves grow along flower stem: these are also pinnate, but have fewer leaflets which are generally thinner and longer than central basal leaves.
Flowers are very small and grow in a ‘raceme’ (the tops of a broccolini are called a raceme, with many buds grouped together that open from the outside in as the stem continues to grow). 4 white petals are rounded, and emerge in a cross-like shape (like all other ‘cruciform/crusciferous’ plants in the Brassica family) around the 4-5 yellow stamens that stick out above the petals.
There are few common weeds that bear any close resemblance to Hairy Bittercress.
Where to find them IN AUSTRALIA:
Chickweed occurs most prolifically in South-East Australia, including SA, Vic, ACT, NSW, and Tas, but can also be spotted in some Southern regions of QLD and WA.
Chickweed likes cool, damp but well-drained soil with access to sunlight, so you’ll often find it growing in veggie gardens or potted plants. It also turns up around tree clumps in parklands and urban greenspaces.
Hairy Bittercress is most commonly found in South-East Australia, but can be found in southern parts of WA, QLD and SA. Once hairy Bittercress is established in an area, it is almost impossible to eradicate due to the distance the seeds can cover when expelled from the seedpod.
It likes damp, recently disturbed soil, open ground, turf and wasteplaces, so is often found in garden nurseries, potting sheds, garden patio areas, and suburban parklands. It can also be found in building sites before construction begins..
When to look for them:
Chickweed & Hairy Bittercress
Given they love cold, wet conditions, you’ll find Chickweed and Hairy Bittercress are most prolific through winter and spring. But if given the right damp and cool conditions, you can sometimes find both of these weeds during late autumn too.
What to do with them:
We like to use Chickweed in place of butter lettuce, as it has a similarly innocuous, slightly-sweet ‘leafy green’ flavour and it’s a great substitute. Because of the sturdy central vein, you may find a mouthful of Chickweed to be a bit stringy – that’s why we generally like to chop the stems into shorter pieces before using.
Use the stems & leaves, and the flowers are edible too. Chop and add to salads, weedy pie, sandwiches, wraps, pesto, green sauce, green smoothies, pureed soup, on top of eggs or avo on toast… wherever you might add a bit of lettuce, why not try using this plant instead!
With it’s peppery flavour, Hairy Bittercress is quite similar in taste to Rocket, and that’s how we like to use it.
Add it to pesto, soup, salads, sandwiches & wraps, green smoothies, weed pies, on top of pizza, through a potato salad, with grilled mediterranean veggies and cous cous. As it’s in the cress family, it does pair beautifully with eggs, so adding it to a curried egg mixture, or chopping and stirring through scrambled eggs is a nice way to use it. And the pretty leaves, young seedpods and flowers make for attractive decorative edible elements to many dishes.
So next time you’re out walking and you notice a lush patch of Green, check to see if there’s any Chickweed in amongst the mix, and keep an eye out for Hairy Bittercress in your garden. Make sure there’s no chance it’s been sprayed with chemicals, or exposed to pollutants, and if not, take home a bunch to add to your meals. You’ll be helping slow the spread of an invasive weed; cutting an item off your grocery list; and building a connection to the land you live on. What a great way to use edges and value the marginal!
If you’re interested in wild foods, you may like some of these recipes and articles: