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Death by chickweed

28 April 2012

Any place where there is a space, nature will attempt to fill. Small plants that seed quickly and colonise places where no one is bothered about them.

Chickweed, Stellaria media, is edible.

Chickweed is particularly high in ascorbic acid (vitamin C) and mucilage, and also provides rutin, para amino benzoic acid (PABA), gamma linolenic acid (GLA, an omega-6 fatty acid derivative), niacin, riboflavin (B2), thiamin (B1), beta carotene (A), magnesium, iron, calcium, potassium, zinc, phosphorus, manganese, sodium, selenium, and silicon. The seeds are also edible. The plant can be dried for storage.

Two antifungal peptides, which are like small proteins made up of amino acids, have recently been identified in Stellaria media, and the relevant genes were used to create transgenic Tobacco and Arabidopsis (Thale Cress, widely used for genetic experiments). The article from Transgenic Research, concludes “Based on our results, we conclude that the genes for antimicrobial peptides from S. media may be promising genetic tools for the improvement of plant resistance to fungal diseases.”

Chickweed features in one of the great episodes of European literature, Njáls saga (here it is incorrectly translated as vetch). In the saga, a typical Icelandic exploration of a cycle of vengeance and feuding, too complex to briefly explain, but a great read (there are plenty of cheap editions and it is online), there is a ‘chickweed incident’. Frequently in sagas and stories of the north, there are raids which end with hall-burnings.

Kolr Þorsteinsson mælti til Flosa: ‘Ráð kømr mér í
hug. Ek hefi sét lopt í skálanum á þvertrjám, ok
skulu vér þar inn bera eldinn ok kveykva við
arfasátu þá er hér stendr fyrir ofan húsin.’

Kol Thorsteinsson said to Flosi: ‘An idea comes to mind. I have seen a loft in the hall above the cross-beams, and we should carry fire there and kindle it with the heap of chickweed.’

Síðan tóku þeir arfasátuna ok báru þar í eld. Fundu
þeir eigi fyrr, er inni váru, en logaði ofan allr
skálinn. Gørðu þeir Flosi þá stór bál fyrir ǫllum
durum. Tók þá kvennaliðit illa at þola, þat er inni

Then they took the chickweed pile and bore it into the fire. Those who were inside did not realize until all the hall above blazed. Flosi and his men then built strong blazes before all the doors. Then the women-folk, those who were inside, began to suffer.

I wonder whether the chickweed was intended for livestock or for human consumption.

Njal declines to emerge and dies with his wife and grandson, the bodies remaining unharmed by the flames.

Click for a larger view of the little star



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