Species distinguishing characteristics:
- Erect or trailing stems with glandular (but not sticky) hairs near the top
- Clusters of 3-6 white flowers with 5 deeply, 2-lobed petals
- Petals 2-3 times longer than the sepals
- Opposite, linear leaves with bundles of secondary leaves in their axils
- Leaves lack stalks and stipules
- Cylindrical seed capsules open by 10 teeth at top
- Annual or perennial herbs in open or disturbed habitats
- Coarse stems that are often swollen at nodes
- Leaves are opposite, undivided, and often encircle the stem
- Flowers are white, pink, or red
- Flowers have 5 sepals, 5 (or 4) separate petals with notched tips, and usually twice as many stamens as petals
- Fruit is a dry capsule with numerous seeds that open by valves at the top
- Family includes many popular garden plants such as carnations and sweet-william (Dianthus spp.), and baby's breath (Gypsophila spp.)
Perennial with erect or trailing stems, 5-40 cm long. Often forms tufts or broad, loose mats up to 40 cm across. Species can be highly variable.
Leaves and stems:
Branched stems that have densely, glandular-hair near the top and in the flower cluster, and smooth or slightly hairy below. Opposite, finely glandular-hairy leaves, 1-3 cm long, that lack stalks and stipules. Leaves are linear and narrow, 1-7 mm wide, with a pointed tip and one deeply inset central vein. Most leaves have secondary bundles of leaves in their joints. Lacks basal leaves.
White flowers in an open, branched flower cluster at stem tip. The 3-6 flowers (rarely single) are attached to the stem by slender, erect hairy stalks, 1-3 cm long. Below the flower cluster are whitish bracts with papery margins. Flowers have 5 egg-shaped petals, 5-12 mm across, each with a deeply notched tip that forms two lobes. Below the petals are 5 green, glandular-hairy sepals, 4-7 mm long, with pointed tips. Petals are 2-3 times longer than the sepals. Flowers have 10 stamens (pollen organs) and 5 pistils (female organs) within its green center.
Stolons and weak taproots with small rhizome-like branches.
Light brown, papery capsule, 6-10 mm long, containing numerous golden to reddish-brown, pimply seeds, about 1 mm long. Capsule is cylindrical, often slightly curved, and opens at the top by 10 teeth.
Dry, gravelly, rocky, or sandy soils in open areas, such as rock outcrops, scree, meadows, open forest, and clearings at low to subalpine elevations. Can grow in chalky, calcium-rich or salty soils.
The genus name Cerastium is derived from Greek word for “horn” (keras) and refers to the curved seed capsule. Arvense is a Latin word that means “of the fields.” The common name, “chickweed,” describes the common practice of feeding plants in this genus to chickens, especially if they are sick.
Young shoots and leaves of field chickweed are edible raw or when boiled like spinach, but have a hairy texture. An astringent juice made from crushed leaves and stems is a mineral-rich tonic and a treatment for painful urination. A tea of the foliage is analgesic to treat inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract and lungs, and to treat uterine bleeding due to miscarriage. A tea can be used externally as a treatment for inflammation of mucous membranes and skin, wounds, burns, and for soothing itchy skin and hives. Plants in this family contain small amounts of saponins, foam producing compounds, and were used as a mild soap or added to bodies of water to stupefy fish causing them to float to the surface.