Why grow spinach?
14 Dec 2021
English spinach (Spinacia oleracea) is a fussy little plant who, like the English, likes a climate rather cooler than ours. Yes, with attentiveness and gardening experience you can get it to grow here. It also likes very rich soil and regular water. It’s not the sort of green to look after itself and simply be available for mealtimes. It’s European popularity seems to be based on being one of the earliest plants available in spring when there’s not much else to eat.
We are privileged with a delicious cornucopia of over forty leafy greens year round who can replace English spinach in our meals. These might not be as well known -yet- however any of these will be easier to grow at home and can be used in similar ways to English spinach depending on your tastebuds. Truly it’s time to move away from the grip that European food habits have over us, realise where we live and choose to grow and learn to eat some more climate appropriate plants.
With a variety of edible greens all looking after themselves in your garden, go for a wander and pluck an assortment of new growth that happens to be ready as you pass by. It becomes effortless to collect a huge amount quickly to eat right away. A mixed serving could look like okinawa spinach, malabar spinach, amaranth, pumpkin tips, sweet potato leaves, silverbeet and mushroom plant. So much more nutrition for you. And free.
For the times you find there is rampant excess in the garden, many greens can be blanched and frozen, or dried and powdered to use later.
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Though there are more that should grow in this climate, these are the ones known to grow here.
All of these are hardy plants, as in very low maintenance, and resistant to pests and diseases. Any exceptions are noted.
Warrigal greens (Tetragonia tetragonioides)
Young leaves raw, older ones must be blanched due to very high oxalic acid content. Young leaves taste like spinach, older ones become more bitter. Leaves are fleshy and spinach sized. Leaves available all year round but active over warmer months.
Wandering ground cover-like plant to 50cm tall. Grows like a weed in sun or shade, tolerates hot dry locations, poor soil, light frost and salty locations. Australian native plant, often seen wild down at the beach. Grows tastiest when in good soil, free draining, well watered and in plenty of sun. Propagate by cuttings or seed.
Longevity spinach (Gynura procumbens)
Raw or cooked. Mild spinach-like flavour. Leaves are thicker than spinach and equivalent sized. Available all year round but active over warmer months.
Wandering ground cover-like plant to 80cm tall but usually more like 50cm. Semi shade, moist well drained soil. Absolutely no tolerance for frost. Propagate by cuttings in this area. It will flower but won’t set seed. Sit cuttings in a jar of water until they grow roots then plant out. Real performer and zero work.
Okinawa spinach (Gynura crepioides)
Raw or cooked. Mild spinach-like flavour. Leaves are reddish-purple underneath and similar size to spinach. Available all year round but active over warmer months.
Wandering ground cover-like plant to 70cm but usually more like 50cm. Full sun to semi shade, moist, rich, well drained soil. Absolutely no tolerance for frost. Propagate by cuttings in this area. It will flower but won’t set seed. Sit cuttings in a jar of water until they grow roots then plant out. Closely related to longevity spinach and they like the same conditions. Not as vigorous as longevity spinach. Real performer and zero work.
Buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum)
Raw or cooked. Mild spinach-like flavour. Leaves are heart shaped and thin and spinach sized. Can be available all year round but active over warmer months. They wilt and don’t store well, eat fresh.
Tall spindly plant to 1.25m. Full sun to semi shade. Can cope with dry spells once established as has a taproot and an extensive web of side roots. Fine in poor soils but must be well drained. In a frost free spot it will be perennial. Propagate by seeds or transplant. Can be a bit weedy, a small patch will keep expanding outward. Loved by bees. Attracts beneficial insects. Heads and seeds up quickly, in as little as a month. Seeds can be harvested as a grain. Often grown as a green manure for bulk and smothering weeds. Prevents erosion with it’s root system. Improves soil by taking up soil phosphorus and returning it in a more plant-friendly form. Leaves and unhulled seeds are good chicken forage. An underrated plant!
Aibika / Queensland greens (Abelmoschus manihot)
Raw or cooked. Leaves are mild flavoured and have a mild mucilaginous property which some people despise. They are large, hand sized and come in many different shapes. Cook lightly ie add in near the end of cooking to reduce the slippery texture and the tendency for the leaves to disintegrate somewhat on cooking. Good in stirfry or cooked in coconut milk. Very nutritious leaves. Warm season plant. Leaves will drop in cooler months here.
Skinny tree to 3m with big leaves, looks a bit like a pawpaw plant. Full sun or part shade. Needs plenty of moisture and rich, mulched soil with excellent drainage, though thrives on neglect. No tolerance whatsoever for frost which will kill the whole tree. Propagate by cuttings about 20cm long when at least 25°C and half bury these in potting mix. It does not tend to set seed in this area. Short lived perennial, replace every 3 – 5 years.
Perpetual spinach, rainbow chard and silverbeet (Beta vulgaris)
Raw or cooked. Similar flavour to spinach but much stronger. Large long leaves the size of your hands are available all year round though prefers cooler months and not thrilled about high summer here.
Clumping plant to 50cm. Perpetual spinach is a type of silverbeet with flatter, less crinkly leaves and less bitterness. Rainbow chard is the one with red or yellow stems. Silverbeet has white stems with deeply crinkly dark green leaves. Full sun to semi shade. Needs regular watering. Soil needs to be rich as this is a heavy feeder. Doesn’t mind frost. Propagate by seed. This plant is a biennial who may need shade in the warmer months here. A bit prone to wilt and bolt and rust in the heat. These are temperate plants outside of their preferred range. Perpetual spinach is less inclined to bolt to seed / has higher tolerance for heat and drought than rainbow chard and silverbeet.
Mushroom plant / rungia (Rungia klossii)
Raw or cooked. Small leaved plant with slight flavour of mushroom. Leaves can be a bit tough if grown without enough water. Leaves available all year round, though active in the warmer months.
Low growing plant to 70cm but usually more like 30cm. Likes a bit of shade, plenty of water and plenty of heat. Does not like to be waterlogged. Prefers richer soils. Propagate by cuttings 20cm long in the wet season. Strip off the bottom leaves and bury half the cutting in soil and keep moist. Struggles a bit over winter here but will tolerate light frost. Slow growing, not super vigorous. Does well as a food forest ground cover and around edges. Perennial for 5+ years.
Katuk / sweetleaf (Sauropus androgynus)
Young leaves raw in moderation, older ones are tougher and need cooking. Flavour of raw peas. Young shoots like asparagus. Safe to eat freely when cooked but more than a sprinkling of raw katuk leaves regularly can lead to permanent lung damage. Thumb sized leaves of very high protein. Available all year round but the plant goes dormant in the cool months.
Medium sized leafy bush to 2m suitable as a hedge. Full sun to part shade. Likes regular water. Any soil as long as it’s well drained. No tolerance to frost. Likes heat and humidity. Propagate by stem cuttings of firm wood 30cm long or by transplanting root suckers.
Brazilian spinach (Alternanthera sissoo)
Raw or cooked but cooked is better as leaves are a bit leathery. Mild flavour that’s a bit bitter. Coin sized leaves, available all year round but young growth in spring is the most palatable.
Small mound creeping groundcover to 30cm high. Likes shade in summer and a bit of sun in winter. Best with plenty of water for softer leaves though won’t tolerate waterlogging. Prefers rich soil. Not fond of frost. Propagate by cuttings. Loves heat and humidity. A tame plant, not very prolific.
Surinam spinach (Talinum triangulare)
Raw in small amounts due to oxalic acid. Safer cooked. Mild tangy flavour, a bit of crunch. Leaves similar size to spinach and available all year round but active over warmer months.
Low bush 30 – 100cm. Better in shade. Likes moisture. Dislikes cold. Technically an annual though self seeds and roots so readily it is always there. Not as hardy as Okinawa spinach.
Chaya spinach tree (Cnidoscolus aconitifolius)
Must be cooked for 15 – 20 minutes, not in aluminium cookware, to remove hydrocyanic acid. Flavour of spinach with firmer leaves. Doesn’t lose much nutrition or colour on cooking. Leaves are size and shape of oversized hands. Leaves available all year round.
Tall skinny tree looking a bit like a pawpaw to 6m though slow growing and usually shorter. Understorey tree so part shade or edges are best but is not fussy about amount of sun, water or state of soil. Can tolerate mild frost. Propagate by cuttings. Very easy.
Tahitian spinach (Colocasia esculenta)
Must be cooked due to calcium oxalate crystals. Mild flavour. Enormous leaves the size of your upper body. Use the stems as well. Leaves available all year round but prefers warmer months.
Clump of giant leaves on stems from one corm to 1.5m tall and wide. Sun or part shade. This is a taro relative so likes boggy locations and rich soil. Mild frost tolerance. Propagate by tuber offshoots or tuber division.
Moringa (Moringa oleifera)
Must be cooked. Flavours of rocket, green tea and grass with a bit of bitterness. Definitely not for everyone, but incredible nutrition. Coin sized leaves. Leaves available all year round though active in warmer months.
Tree to 8m x 3m but fine with pruning. Full sun to part shade. Prefers little water and hates waterlogging. Will grow in poor soil. Can tolerate light frosts. Goes dormant below 18°C. Prone to being blown over by wind. Propagate by cuttings, they root easily. Does not set seed here, it’s not warm enough.
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