Which Chickweed?

By: Howard Lee

Going back to where a patch of scarlet pimpernels caught my eye a few months back, I find small white flowers about 3-5 mm across. The five petals are deeply cleft so that the flower appears to have ten petals. Behind the flower, five green sepals form an elegant star. The leaves are oval and paired at the stem.

I had seen and photographed flowers like this before, so I pull up my pictures of common chickweed, but the shape of the petals and the color of the anthers make me uneasy with the provisional identification. The number of stamens and styles are also different. A Google search reveals that this is not common chickweed (Stellaria media), but mouse-ear chickweed (Cerastium vulgatum). Both are in the Caryophyllaceae family.

The flowers of mouse-ear chickweed are not as deeply cleft. Mouse-ear chickweed has ten stamens and five styles while common chickweed has three of each. The stamens are tipped with yellow anthers in mouse-ear chickweed while the anthers of common chickweed are dark. The leaves of mouse-ear chickweed are fuzzy while those of common chickweed are smooth—this perhaps is the easy way to distinguish the two.

Neither chickweed is native here, and both are widespread worldwide. In most gardens, they are considered weeds. They both grow in dense mats and are edible, though the fuzzy texture of mouse-ear chickweed makes it less palatable. In Japan, common chickweed is one of the ingredients in seven herb rice porridge. This simple dish is eaten at the Festival of the Seven Herbs, now celebrated on January 7, to bring good health and longevity.

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Sutro Stewards is a project of the San Francisco Parks Alliance, a 501(c)3 California nonprofit public benefit corporation.