June 22, 2017

Weedy but Edible

Tetragonia tetragonioides - New Zealand spinach

Credit: Kurt Stüber | Wikimedia Commons - Tetragonia tetragonioides - New Zealand spinach

• By Janine Pineo •

For the past few weeks I’ve been fighting my way through seed catalogs.

It’s a pleasurable task once you realize you have four (or five … or six) versions of the same catalog; they just have different covers.

After whacking the stack down from about 6 inches high to about 2 inches, I piled up my favorites, pulled out my notebook and dug in.

And I realized I was hungry.

What I would give for some golden summer squash, a few juicy snap peas and a sun-warmed, ripe tomato. Or a crisp green pepper. Or a basket full of tender yellow beans. Or a handful of baby carrots with dirt still clinging to the roots.

But one particular category catches my attention in every catalog and has me nearly drooling over the pictures.

Greens, the realm of leafy vegetables.

It covers a lot of territory.

At the top of my list are leaf lettuce and spinach. I grow a multitude of varieties for a range of colors, flavors and bolt resistance (how long it takes to go to seed).

For a few years, those two pretty tame greens — with the exception of some red leaf lettuces — were all I planted. I couldn’t imagine eating some of the weedy things the catalogs touted.

Last year, something snapped. I wanted to eat weedy things and more.

I branched out in the spinach world with New Zealand spinach or tetragonia, which isn’t a true spinach and is a perennial to boot (we’ll see if that is true when the garden is plowed up). Pinetree Garden Seeds says this plant has been in use in the United States for more than 200 years and is a staple of the gardens of Sturbridge Village, a historical village in Massachusetts.

Orach, also called mountain spinach, was another newcomer to my garden plot. This plant, with a history dating back 3,000 years, tastes much like spinach.

I didn’t stop there. I decided to sow some purslane, a bona fide weed if ever there was one. The Shepherd’s Garden Seeds catalog dressed it up as French purslane, but it didn’t matter. It was delicious, kind of crunchy and juicy. The sturdy plant (this cultivated variety grows upright, not on runners) will be making a return visit to my garden plot. I’m sure my heart will thank me: Purslane is a source of Omega-3 fatty acids which help fight heart disease, Shepherd’s says. Plus it’s a source of vitamin E.

Credit: Britton & Brown | USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database | Wikimedia Commons - Malva verticillata from a 1913 illustration from "Illustrated flora of the northern states and Canada"

One curiosity was Malva verticillata, or curly mallow. I had my doubts when slightly fuzzy-leaved plants emerged and grew and grew and grew. Most of the plants towered at 6 feet, but the flavor of the frilly leaves never diminished. Nichols Garden Nursery, the only source I’ve found for this plant, calls curly mallow “a rare find.” If the thought of eating such a plant bothers you, consider that its striking foliage makes it a nice ornamental or an elegant garnish.

Kale was next on my list. Kale had never appealed to me — I pictured the gaudy ornamental types — but a photo of the gorgeous Red Russian variety in the Seeds of Change catalog convinced me to try it. Red Russian’s oak-shaped leaves are veined with red, although it turns a deep green when blanched. I used some of the kale in salads, but I harvested and blanched the majority of it well after a few frosts last fall. The taste reminded me of buttered greens — without the butter. Most catalogs say the taste of these hardy plants improves after a frost. I agree.

Rhubarb chard was another colorful addition. It had been many years since chard had been sown in the Pineo garden, a sorry fact indeed. Its return to the plot was spectacular, easily withstanding drought conditions. Throughout the summer, a few leaves of rhubarb chard added color to salads. It even kept its purple tinge when cooked.

Perhaps my most magnificent discovery last summer was Chinese cabbage. After seeing the behemoths offered in the supermarket, I thought it highly unlikely my bitsy seeds would do much of anything. But since I grow winter cabbage rather well, I gave the Oriental version a try.

These plants are amazing and impressed me with the ease of cultivation. I did little beyond putting the seed in the ground, then voila! Sprouting up were Joi Choi, a hybrid, white-stemmed pak choi, and Kasumi, a hybrid Chinese cabbage. Both, sold by Vesey’s Seeds Ltd., produced all summer long from one planting. I harvested these varieties by leaving some of the stem each time and was rewarded with new growth as vigorous as the first. The plants even survived an infestation of little black bugs in the late summer, bouncing back for a fall crop I blanched and froze.

With such tasty results last year, I’m trying a few more greens this summer (where I’ll find the space I don’t know).

From Johnny’s Selected Seeds, I’m trying red-leaf vegetable amaranth. Its attractive leaves are liberally marked with burgundy, and it has an added bonus of being heat-tolerant.

Also from Johnny’s is Claytonia, or miner’s lettuce. This plant produces “quantities of heart-shaped leaf pairs, each `wrapped’ around a white-flowered stem,” the catalog says. The photo reveals an elegant-looking plant that would grace any salad. The roots, too, are edible raw or cooked.

Several catalogs are offering an heirloom bibb lettuce, Deer Tongue. I know, it sounds disgusting, but that’s what the leaves resemble. I admire its robust looks and hope it truly is slow to bolt.

From W. Atlee Burpee & Co., I’m ordering a packet of mixed greens, called mesclun. I admit I was hooked by the pretty picture, but I can taste each of the 10 varieties: Prizeleaf, Oak Leaf, Red Salad Bowl and Green Ice lettuces, arugula, endive, chervil, mache, radicchio and upland cress. The only problem I see is finding one thing I love and then not being able to identify it.

Several catalogs also sell seeds for dandelion greens.

Hmmm.

I don’t think so.

First published in the Bangor Daily News in February 1996.

2012 note: Sixteen years later, Shepherd’s no longer exists, but you can find purslane in most seed catalogs. And Nichols no longer sells Malva verticillata, although that has never been a problem since it readily reseeds itself in my garden every year, although I always worry that it won’t and then dozens of little plants pop up, reaching 6, 7 or 8 feet in height before the frosts kill them. And since 1996, Japanese beetles have invaded my yard. One of their favorites is the malva, now my sacrificial plant. Deer Tongue lettuce is a staple in my garden, and so is mesclun, a now-common term. Despite my misgivings, I even have grown dandelion since then.