Lamb's quarters, pigweed, fat hen
by Genevieve Jacobs
Popeye was one cool dude. Pretty smart, too, because he knew what was good for him: Olive Oyl and spinach. Spending my childhood needing the muscle to protect myself from two older brothers, I looked to Popeye for inspiration. Episode after episode convinced me that spinach was the key to being able to lift heavy logs over my head and sock the neighborhood bully into next week. I ate it in earnest. My two younger sisters became so awed at my newfound confidence and brawn that they ate it, too. My brothers left me alone. Spinach had saved me.
Looking back at those Popeye episodes, I figure they must have been shot in the dormant season, for Popeye always seemed to be eating spinach from a can. But I figure Popeye never could have developed muscles like that from canned spinach he must have been eating wild spinach behind the scenes.
Wild spinach, lamb’s quarters, pigweed, fat hen–these are but a few of the common names for Chenopodium album, translated from its Greek botanical name to its other most common name, white goosefoot. Wild spinach is cousin to the more familiar cultivated spinach we know as well as beets, chard, and quinoa. Its nutritional value rivals any of these, and its great taste and texture make it downright ironic that this plant is considered an invasive weed, to be annihilated by every means possible to make way for other, less nutritionally valuable cultivated crops.
Chenopodium album is a very successful annual which is considered to be native to North America; archeological investigations trace the seeds of it to prehistoric times, and its use as a food source for humans as well as birds and mammals is well documented. It currently has a global distribution and continues to be used as a food source in some parts around the world; local lore has it that this plant helped sustain families on the Island during the great depression. Its reproductive strategy is to produce copious seed—up to 75,000 per plant—that birds and other wildlife find irresistible, thus transporting and depositing them far and wide. But wild spinach depends upon man for its success it is “anthropophilic”, meaning that it exists alongside man, where the soil has been disturbed, making it one of the most common weeds of roadside and garden during the growing season.
So how do you recognize this powerhouse of a plant, and where can you find it? Look for it June through August in areas of the garden that have been neglected, at the edges of manure and compost heaps, at construction sites, and just about anywhere the soil was disturbed recently or in the previous season.
Recognizing this plant is easy once you know where to look. Its botanical name, chenopodium, meaning “goosefoot,” and album, meaning “white,” describes the shape of the leaf and its color; the white of this plant is most evident at its growing tips and appears as a dusting of white powder, actually a concentration of oxalic acid crystals which exists in less visually evident concentrations over the entire plant. These oxalic acid crystals also make the leaves waterproof, further assisting in its identification—if you mist the leaves, the water will bead up and roll right off.
Handling this plant leaves a gritty feel on the fingers. Oxalic acid concentrations are present in cultivated spinach as well, and are responsible for that occasional gritty teeth sensation you get when eating it. It’s worth mentioning that some folks with certain chronic health problems should be careful about foods containing large amounts of oxalic acid; if your doctor doesn’t want you to eat spinach, you might not want to eat the wild variety. But for the vast majority of us, this food would be a wonderful addition to a healthy diet.
I enjoy wild spinach raw or cooked, straight off the plant or in any dish that calls for spinach or any type of cooked green. Harvest the growing tips where the stem snaps off cleanly and you will experience tenderness and great flavor of both leaves and stem. If you harvest from an older part of the stem and it pulls and shreds, the stem will be too fibrous to eat, but the leaves will still be tender and flavorful.
If you play your cards right, you can prune and eat from various parts of the plant, thus stimulating new growth and utilizing the same plant for a good part of the season. Eventually, the plant will produce broccoli-like flower heads. These, too, are edible and delicious as long as they are harvested before they start to produce seed (bolting) when they then become bitter. I could go on and on about the virtues of wild spinach, but I’ll just say I’m strong to the fin-ich, cause I eats wild spi-nach! I hope you’ll become a fan.