Why grow spinach? Part two
14 Dec 2021
In part one we looked at the perennial plants we can use as spinach greens here. This time we look at the annuals, the food plants we are already growing and edible weeds. Truly, there is no need to be trying to grow English spinach with so many options.
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Amaranth (Amaranthus caudatus)
Raw in moderation due to nitrates and oxalic acid. Fine cooked. Mild flavour, a touch of sweet. Small to hand sized leaves. Older plants and leaves become bitter and tougher. Warm season plant though can self sow over cooler months in sunny patches, except in the depth of winter.
Tall bushy stalk about 1.5m. Full sun to part shade. Likes steady moisture and rich soil. Propagate by seed. Hardy, unfussy plant.
Malabar spinach / Ceylon spinach (Basella alba)
Raw or cooked. Quite bland in taste and have a mucilaginous property which some people despise. Leaves are a bit smaller than the palm of your hand and thick. Best to cook lightly ie add in near the end of cooking. Warm season plant.
Vining plant to 9m but usually more like 3m. There are climbing and sprawling varieties. Full sun, regular moisture, any soil. Does not like being waterlogged. Does like hot humid conditions. Does not tolerate frost so dies back in winter here. Propagate by seed. Self seeds but is not invasive.
Kang kong / water spinach (Ipomoea aquatica)
Raw or cooked. Mild delicious flavour. Enjoyable crunch of hollow stems. Leaves are about the size of chicken feet, but leaves and stems are usually eaten as one. Best very lightly cooked. Warm season plant.
Spindly plant to 3m but usually well under 1m. Full sun or part shade. Any soil as long as there is plenty of water such as a bog, pond or other waterlogged conditions. No tolerance for frost. Prefers temperatures above 24°C. Propagate by cuttings or seed.
Egyptian spinach (Corchorus olitorius)
Raw or cooked. Mild flavour. Can have some bitterness. Spinach sized leaves or larger. Warm season plant.
Tall stem to 1m. Prefers a sunny spot. Tolerates many watering and soil conditions. Hardy plant. Propagate by seed. Make sure to get a vegetable variety. Some varieties are grown for jute fibre.
You might already be growing these
Sweet potato leaves (Ipomoea batatas) – Mild flavour. Wilts quickly after picking. Young leaves raw or cooked, older leaves better cooked. Dies back in winter.
Beetroot leaves (Beta vulgaris subsp. vulgaris) – Chard flavour. Raw or cooked. May need to trim out centre stem due to toughness especially for older leaves. All year round, especially cooler months.
Cucumber leaves (Cucumis sativus) – Super mild flavour. Growing tips and young leaves. Raw or cooked. Warm season plant.
Radish leaves – European and Korean mu (Raphanus raphanistrum subsp. sativus) and daikon (R. sativus subsp. longipinnatus) – Flavour varies depending on variety, can be very mild, can be peppery and a little bitter. Use raw or cooked. Available all year round.
Broad bean leaves (Vicia faba) – Mild broad bean flavour. Use young leaves and growing tips raw or cooked. Older leaves are a bit tough. Cool season plant.
Snowpea & pea leaves (Pisum sativum) – Mild pea flavour. Use young leaves and growing tips raw or cooked. Older leaves are a bit tough. Cool season plant.
Bean leaves – Runner beans (Phaseolus vulgaris), winged beans (Psophocarpus tetragonolobus), snake beans (Vigna unguiculata var. sesquipedalis) and lablab beans (Lablab purpureus) – Runner have a mildly bean flavour, lablab has a strong bean flavour, winged beans have a flavour more like asparagus and snake beans are reminiscent of lemony rocket. Use young leaves and growing tips raw or cooked. Older leaves are a bit tough. Warm season plants.
Capsicum leaves (Capsicum annuum) – Milder capsicum flavour. Raw can be bitter and contain unsafe levels of alkaloids, cooked is fine. Warm season plant.
Pumpkin leaves (Cucurbita maxima, C. moschata, C. pepo, C. mixta) – Mild flavour. Raw or cooked. Use growing tips and younger leaves. Young stems can be used but need to be stripped of the spines first, then cooked. Warm season plant.
Brassica leaves – cauliflower, broccoli, kale, cabbage, collards, kohlrabi (Brassica oleracea) – Taste more like chard or cabbage than spinach. Flavour is usually a milder version of the fruiting part of the plant we commonly eat. Lots of sulphur in them is really good for us and poultry. Raw or cooked. Younger leaves are more palatable. All year round though more cool season plants.
Turnip leaves (Brassica rapa var. rapa) – Peppery flavour. Young leaves raw or cooked, older leaves better cooked. Leaves are so nutritious that the edible root is more like a bonus. Cool season plant.
Swede leaves (Brassica napus) – Mild cabbage like flavour. Young leaves raw or cooked, older leaves better cooked. Cool season plant.
Rosella leaves (Hibiscus sabdariffa) – Lemony / acidic flavour like French sorrel. Young leaves only as older leaves too tough. Raw or cooked. Half a dozen or so leaves is enough as flavour is strong. Warm season plant.
Okra leaves (Abelmoschus esculentus) – Young leaves slightly grassy flavour, older leaves become bitter. Like the pods, leaves are mucilaginous which some people despise but which is useful for thickening stews. Raw or cooked but better cooked to soften the spines. Warm season plant.
Caigua leaves (Cyclanthera pedata) – Young leaves and tips have a mild flavour. Raw (probably) or cooked. Warm season plant.
Loofah leaves (Luffa acutangula and Luffa aegyptiaca) – No info on flavour. The young fruit are similar in taste to zucchini and a little sweet. Young leaves and growing tips can definitely be eaten cooked, no info on raw. Warm season plant.
Salsify leaves (Tragopogon porrifolius) – Mild flavour. Raw or cooked but leaves tend to be a bit tough so much better cooked. Cool season plant.
Cassava leaves (Manihot esculenta) – Mildly bitter. MUST be cooked, lid off, to remove cyanide. Steaming or boiling for 5 – 10 minutes is enough. Leaves are then best cut fine or cooked for some time as they are fibrous. Young leaves are better. Warm season plant. Regular green veg in Africa.
Even less work are the weeds who look after themselves and simply appear. Learn to identify them one by one and you won’t need to bother at all with trying to grow greens. There are many edible weeds better as herbs or a touch of added salad flavour. Here are a top ten of locally occurring weeds useful in a meal in place of spinach.
Chickweed (Stellaria media) – Flavour of fresh corn or if you’re being unkind, grass. Chop fine, stems can be stringy. Raw or cooked. Cool season plant. Annual. Likes damp part shaded spots in the garden and lawn.
Cats ear / flatweed (Hypochaeris radicata) – Mild flavour after simmering for 15 mins, retains leaf shape and fleshyness of leaf. Bitter when raw or undercooked. All year round. Perennial. Likes lawns and disturbed areas
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) – Mildly bitter. Raw or cooked. All year round. Perennial. Likes lawns and disturbed areas.
Purslane (Portulaca oleracea) – Nutty flavour. Raw or cooked. Older stems are stringy. Summer plant. Annual. Pioneer of bare hard clay soil.
Nettle / stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) – Nettle flavour! Stinging is deactivated on cooking. Cool season plant. Perennial. Likes wet shady places.
Wild mustard / brassicas (Sinapis arvensis, Sisymbrium officinale, Brassica spp.) – Mustard, peppery, rocket like flavour or broccoli like flavour. Raw or cooked though often have hairy leaves which are more palatable cooked. Cool season plants. Biennial or annual. Found in naturestips and on vacant lots ie previously cleared, now grassy areas.
Madeira vine (Anredera cordifolia) – Said to be very tasty. Mucilaginous leaves. Raw or cooked but better cooked. All year. Long lived perennial. Major pest of a weed found anywhere.
Yellow weed / Potato weed / Gallant solider (Galinsoga parviflora) – Mild flavour of peas. Raw in moderation as leaves are furry and a bit strange, or cooked. Warm season plant. Annual. Likes lawns and disturbed areas.
Fat hen / Lamb’s quarters (Chenopodium album) – Similar flavour to chard or rich nutty spinach. Raw in moderation due to oxalic acid, or cooked. Warm season plant. Annual. Likes lawns and disturbed areas.
Common sowthistle / also sometimes known as milk thistle (Sonchus oleraceus) – Mild to no flavour. Raw or cooked but better cooked. All year round with possible preference for cool season. Annual or biennial. Likes lawns and disturbed areas.
Supported by Bellingen Shire Council via the Bellingen Shire Disaster Recovery and Resilience Grant Program Funding
Big thanks to
John Vernon and the Bellingen Seed Savers blog, Nell Hayden, Jeff Alcott, Nick Radford, Tim Hill and other Bellingen Seed Savers over the years who have contributed to my pool of knowledge on these more unusual plants. Rasa Dover of Byron Hinterland Seed Savers. Carole & Phil Helman, John Hodgekinson.
Just a small number of useful starting points rather than a bibliography this time
1. Grubb A. The Weed Forager’s Handbook. Hyland House Publishing; 2012. (Annie).
2. Bellingen Seed Savers [Internet]. Blog of Bellingen Seed Savers. [cited 2021 Dec 7]. Available from: http://bellingenseedsaversunderground.blogspot.com/
3. Online Edible Plants – Leafy Greens [Internet]. Green Harvest. [cited 2021 Dec 7]. Available from: https://greenharvest.com.au/Plants/SummerLeafyGreens.html
4. Organic Vegetable Seeds Online – Silverbeet and Spinach [Internet]. Green Harvest. [cited 2021 Dec 7]. Available from: https://greenharvest.com.au/SeedOrganic/VegetableSeeds/SalsifyToSpinach.html