Spinach – one name, many plants
Some common names spread over a wide range of quite separate plants. Spinach is definitely one of these. For some people it refers to any type of leafy green vegetable including the traditional spinach varieties – Spinacia oleracea, and numerous others; Malabar (or Climbing) Spinach – Basella alba, Spinach Perpetual – Beta vulgaris (Gator), Spinach Baby – Beta vulgaris ‘Baby’, NZ Spinach (or Warrigal Greens) – Tetragonia tetragonoides and Chinese (or water) Spinach – Amaranthus dubius. Then there are the other greens like Chard, Silverbeet, Chinese Greens – Wong Bok, Bok Choy, Pak Choi etc that are often called spinach.
All leafy green vegetables are healthy and should be a regular part of our diet. Traditional spinach is thought to be one of the most nutritious of all veggies. It is high in all the common vitamins (A, C, E, K plus B1,2,3,6 and 9) and many of the key metals like Iron, Magnesium and Manganese. It also tastes good. It can be cooked in a myriad of ways but the longer it is cooked the less nutritious it becomes. Best lightly steamed and served with a squeeze of lemon dash of butter and a sprinkling of cracked black pepper.
Spinach is a relatively new vegetable to the western palate but has been part of the West Asian and Chinese diet for centuries. It is thought to have originated in the Eastern Arabian countries and quickly moved through Western Asia to Nepal and eventually China. During the 12th to 16th centuries it found its way through Europe to the UK.
Spinacia oleracea is an annual (or rarely biennial) flowering shrub in the Amaranth family. It grows to around 30 cm tall with small pale flowers. The leaves are light green, ovate to heart shaped varying from 5 to 25cm long and 2 to 12 cm wide. It will grow all year in locations with a mild winter but will bolt to seed in the warmer regions if not harvested regularly. It likes part to full sun in moist but not wet soil. Although it will grow in poor ground it performs best in a rich, fertile and open soil.
There are three basic groupings of the multiple different cultivars. The groups are primarily based on leaf shape and texture. The Smooth leaved group produces wide flat leaves that are used for processing. The Savoy group has dark green, rippled leaves that is very common for the home gardener in the US and its various forms are usually quite high yielding. The third group is the intermediate form, Semi Savoy that has lightly crinkled foliage which is popular for the fresh food markets.
Perpetual Spinach looks much like the traditional flat leaved spinach but is actually closely related to the various forms of Beet. It has the Latin name, Beta vulgaris (Gator) or Beta vulgaris ‘Baby’ for the small leaved form. It is known as ‘Beet Spinach’ or ‘Spinach Chard’. The name perpetual comes from the long harvest period of early spring to late autumn (all year in warmer climates). It doesn’t bolt easily and if picked regularly it will yield lots of fresh green leaves. The only negative is that it has a very short shelf life which is why it is primarily a home gardener plant and rarely seen in green grocers or supermarkets.
Perpetual Spinach is the same as Beetroot but without the rounded root. It is thought to have evolved in southern Europe and quickly spread east and west. Unlike other common vegetables there has been very little breeding or targeted selection. Hence there aren’t many cultivars available around the world.
Beta vulgaris is another healthy, leafy green with great flavour. It is not nutritious as true spinach but is still very high in vitamin A, and high in Vitamins C & K, iron and calcium. Like spinach it is best lightly steamed so as to preserve the vitamins. Great eaten raw in salads or lightly tossed in olive oil with garlic, ginger and soy sauce.
It grows to around 60 cm tall with small flowers when it matures. The ovate leaves are dark green on long fleshy stems up to 2cm long and 15 cm wide. It likes part to full sun in a moist but not wet, open and rich soil. Feed and harvest regularly for best results. Also known as Chard it comes in several forms; Swiss (green), Golden, Ruby and Rainbow.
As I mentioned at the start the common name Spinach covers numerous plants and in this article we have looked at the two plants that most of us know or think of as spinach. Next month I will look at a couple of quite different plants that are also referred to by this common, common name. Plus give a few simple recipes and cooking hints..