Heirloom Warm-Weather Salad Greens
Learn how to grow heirloom warm-weather salad greens.
September 27, 2013
By William Woys Weaver
Heirloom Vegetable Gardening by William Woys Weaver is the culmination of some thirty years of first-hand knowledge of growing, tasting and cooking with heirloom vegetables. A staunch supporter of organic gardening techniques, Will Weaver has grown every one of the featured 280 varieties of vegetables, and he walks the novice gardener through the basics of planting, growing and seed saving. Sprinkled throughout the gardening advice are old-fashioned recipes — such as Parsnip Cake, Artichoke Pie and Pepper Wine — that highlight the flavor of these vegetables. The following excerpt on heirloom warm-weather salad greens was taken from chapter 33, “Saladings, Warm Weather.”
To locate mail order companies that carry these heirloom warm-weather salad greens, use our Custom Seed and Plant Finder. Check out our collection of articles on growing and harvesting heirloom vegetables in Gardening With Heirloom Vegetables.
A Brief History of Heirloom Warm Weather Salad Greens
There are times when I think salads have become a lost art, for no matter where I go in this country, the same insipid vegetables manage to surface on the menu. They are usually described as “fresh,” which means “not dead,” trucked in from a distant semidesert field harvested by underpaid Mexicans and infested with whiteflys, gray aphids, and poison. Vinegar does not hide the taste of insecticidal sprays, but chardonnay is one chic way to fool untrained palettes. A clever kitchen gardener does not need to spend one penny on dubious saladings when for just a small amount of effort in the backyard bed, extraordinary greens can be brought to perfection with little or no effort. I have chosen thirteen saladings that are for the most part insect-free, not bothered by common diseases, and will make salads of extraordinary beauty. I like salads that fall into my plate like a piñata broken open. For color and textures, my thirteen favorites will not disappoint.
Also known as black lovage and black potherb, this impressive tall perennial looks very much like the herb angelica but is considerably less temperamental to grow. It reaches a height of about 4 feet and prefers deep, rich soil. Today I often see it raised as a specimen plant in herb gardens rather than as a vegetable, for it is now rarely grown as a potherb. In cookery it has been replaced by celery, although the two are as different from one another as apples and pears. Furthermore, from a gardening standpoint, Alexanders is far easier to grow than celery, more resistant to frosts, and does not require the constant attention that celery demands if it is to be anything like presentable. This low-maintenance aspect is probably one reason why Alexanders was once so popular in kitchen gardens of country people.
Philadelphia nurseryman John Bartram distributed seed to a number of customers in the 1760s. However, there is ample evidence from New England and the South to show that Alexanders was introduced early in the 1600s and that it was popular with cooks of that period. The stems can be used like celery and the leaves like parsley, although the flavor is distinct — I would say pungent — ranging from strong celery seed to a hint of pine or rosemary. It seems to work best in recipes where we might use rosemary or sage today; thus it is excellent in stuffings, bread puddings, and most pork dishes. English diarist John Evelyn (1699, 7) recommended Alexanders as a salad green blanched under flowerpots to sweeten its flavor, or chopped and boiled in a “vernal pottage,” a species of spring stew.
From the Middle Ages into the latter part of the eighteenth century, Alexanders was used extensively in “black” recipes, that is, in blood dishes like black pudding or Polish goose blood soup. The pungency of Alexanders nicely complemented the fattiness and strong taste of that type of cookery. Today, it offers an alternative flavoring for bean, potato, and lentil recipes.
The seed of Alexanders is hard and difficult to germinate because it requires a cold treatment. Plant the seed in a small flat, cover with a plastic bag, and store in the coldest part of the refrigerator for two months. Then freeze the flat for one or two days, let it thaw in the refrigerator, then uncover and move it to a cool but well-lit windowsill. The seed should germinate in a matter of two weeks. Otherwise, plant the seed in the garden during the late fall and let it overwinter in the ground to germinate the following spring.
I cannot imagine a vegetable easier to grow or more prolific of summer greens than this one. It is also one of the oldest cultivated potherbs in this book. The ancient Greeks raised it as a garden green, and people throughout the Mediterranean still grow it in kitchen gardens. In fact, my seed came from Athens, where it is grown and harvested when about a foot tall and cooked like spinach. When the plant is older, the stems toughen, so only the leaves and new shoots should be used.
During the Roman period, bliton was introduced into France and Germany, but its culture is limited to mild-climate areas. The plant grows very well in Pennsylvania. In parts of the South, it has naturalized and become a common weed. Since it is a subtropical plant, seed should be started indoors, then thinned to flats. Transplant large seedling out of doors when the ground is warm enough to plant beans. This will give the amaranth a head start against early frost, for it often sets seed only toward the end of September or early October. If it is being raised purely for greens and not also for seed, the seed can be planted broadcast where it is to grow after the danger of frost has passed. Seedlings can be thinned for salads or used like spinach.
Dandelion offers one of the richest sources of vitamins and minerals of all the garden greens. Among the Pennsylvania Dutch it was (and still is) the centerpiece of Green Thursday, the Thursday before Good Friday, when families go into the fields to gather the makings of hot salads and cooked greens. The aroma of bacon dressing and ham pervades the landscape. Many Americans still gather dandelion from the wild, but historically, there were three varieties cultivated for use in kitchen gardens.
In 1840 Le Bon Jardinier devoted some attention to the improvement of dandelion from the wild. By that time the three basic varieties had already evolved, each quite distinct from the other. The broad-leaved sort (pissenlit très hautif à large feuille), called French Broad Leaf in the United States, was the most popular in this country. It was generally cooked as a spring green or used in hot salads. The solid-hearted or cabbaging variety (pissenlit à coeur plein), shown in the woodcut, was considered the finest by the French. It was popular with European market gardeners because it could be blanched and sold for a high price, but was too labor intensive for most gardeners in this country. The third type, pissenlit mousse or moss dandelion, which resembles moss endive, was grown largely in kitchen gardens rather than as a commercial crop. It is popular in Italy, where seed is still generally available under the names radicchiello, soffione, or tarassaco. It should not be confused with Italian dandelion, the misleading commercial name used in this country for cicoria catalogna.
The development of dandelion as a commercial crop did not occur in this country until well after the Civil War. Peter Chase, a market gardener near Brattleboro, Vermont, who called himself “the greenest” of the green people, described dandelion farming as it was then evolving in an article for Vick’s Illustrated Monthly Magazine (1882, 364–65). Chase recommended the French Broad Leaf variety, and that is the one I grow in my garden. Certainly, of the three types, it is the easiest to cultivate.
The leaves are large and upright, ranging from 12 to 14 inches in length, forming thick clumps rather than lying flat against the ground like the wild sort. Individual plants should be spaced two feet apart, or crowding will result in mildew damage during hot humid weather. The plants bloom about mid-April, with flower stems measuring 24 to 30 inches. The flowering is profuse and makes a perfect crop for dandelion wine. Dandelion wine well made tastes like dry sherry, and was once considered a tonic for liver complaints.
All of the cultivated dandelions will cross with wild ones, so it is extremely important to keep die garden stock well isolated. The plants of all three varieties are treated as perennials and therefore serve as a source of greens for many years. It is a good idea, however, to renew the beds every five years and to move the plants to a different part of the garden. Dandelions draw up large amounts of minerals from the soil and will exhaust the ground if raised too long on one spot. Cultivated dandelions reproduce as prolifically as their wild cousins and can become invasive unless kept in check.
Of all the saladings in this section, purslane is indeed the most sensitive to cold. Even weather in the range of 50 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit does not agree with it. Purslane must have baking hot sun and baking hot ground, and the worse the soil the better. All of us have dry spots in our gardens where nothing seems to grow; purslane is the ideal answer.
Purslane grows wild in this country, and anyone who gardens regularly knows very well what an obnoxious weed it can be. Yet even that lowly weed is edible, a problem as simple to solve as dusting off a salad bowl. However, there are cultivated purslanes that are far superior to the wild sorts, and of these, the yellow variety is the most distinctive. It is certainly my favorite, and I have been growing it for many years.
John Evelyn mentioned golden purslane in his Acetaria (1699, 55–56), prepared in salads, pickled, or cooked like a potherb. Cooking reduces the leaves of all purslanes to mush, but the young stems, poached in white wine, make a delightful vegetable. They must be harvested young, for when the stems begin to turn pink or red, they will be tough and woody. John Nott provided a recipe for pickling the stems in his Cooks and Confectioners Dictionary (1726, 269):
Put your Purslane into as much Wine as water, with a little salt; then boil it, put it into a Pot, and pour as much white-wine vinegar, as will cover it; if you please, you may add Sugar to your White-wine.
I have made this pickle, and a little sugar does not hurt, for it brings out the lemony flavor of the purslane. Actually, the flavor of purslane is neutral; it is the presence of acids in the leaves that produce the lemony sensation, which can be used to good advantage in cookery.
Golden purslane is upright rather than spreading like the wild sorts and can grow as tall as 12 inches if the situation is to its liking. The leaves are larger than the wild plants, very round, thick, and perfect for salads or as a raw garnish. Due to their brilliant yellow-green color, the young leaves are extremely decorative. As the plant matures, the yellow changes to a deeper green.
Purslane is raised by broadcasting the seed over the bed where it is to grow once the ground is warm enough to plant beans. The seed will not germinate if the weather is cool, so there is no point trying to plant it early. However, once summer has set in and the evenings are hot (over 70 degrees Fahrenheit), purslane can be planted in two-week successions until September. It matures quickly, within 4 to 6 weeks, and goes to seed fast, so it is important to space plantings so that there is a constant supply all summer.
Golden purslane is self-pollinating, but because of insects, it will cross with the common weed as well as with the Tall Green and other cultivated varieties, even as far away as 500 feet. It is therefore best to grow only one variety at a time and vigorously exterminate the weed anywhere near the kitchen garden. Golden purslane blooms with a tiny yellow flower that is visited by small wasps and other insects early in the morning. As the seedpods form, they dry and burst open. Seed can be gathered by nipping off the seedheads with scissors and letting them dry in paper bags. The seed is black and finer than sand. A small patch of purslane in the garden 10 feet square will yield sufficient greens for family use and vast quantities of seed.
In the Roman Open-Air Museum at Schwarzenacker near Homburg/Saar in Germany there is a large terra sigillata bowl ornamented with springing hares and Good King Henry. The bowl is presumed to have been buried when the town on that site burned in A.D. 275 or 276. The well-known association of Good King Henry with the fattening of geese or rabbits for feast days has survived from the religious practices of the ancient Gauls in the form of
In his Pennsylvania German herbal, the issue for 1774, Christopher Sauer described its culinary uses: “It is customary to cook this potherb, stems and tender shoots, in meat stock with butter, salt, and a few herbs, and eat it thus. It is a well-known side dish as well liked as asparagus and young hops.” The tender shoots were indeed considered a delicacy, for they are among the first greens to appear in the spring — and one of the last to disappear in the fall. The plant is a hardy perennial, about a foot tall, and prefers rich soil in semishade. I have planted it in a bed five feet square, and this supplies me amply for eight months of the year. The leaves taste like spinach and can be used in any recipe where spinach or a similar green is called for.
Good King Henry has one drawback: it does not bear transplanting once established. Therefore, it must be planted when very young, or the seed must be broadcast in the fall on the spot where it is to grow. The seed requires a cold treatment like that suggested for Alexanders, and plants require a year to establish themselves before harvesting can commence. Once established, the plants can be kept cropped to about 6 inches in height. They should also be kept well watered during dry weather, or they may go into dormancy until early fall.
Much maligned as an invasive weed from Europe, this is one of those common annual plants that deserves better recognition. It grows 1 to 3 feet tall, but is best for culinary purposes when small, under 10 inches. The leaves are gray and taste like walnuts. They are delicious in mixed salads with hickory nuts, or with a walnut oil dressing. Furthermore, the seeds can be ground to make a flour that resembles buckwheat flour in color and taste. The seeds can also be parched, ground, and mixed with cornmeal for mush or johnny cakes. If the greens are to be cooked, they are best done in a microwave oven for about 10 minutes. A good combination is goosefoot, beet greens, and spinach; leeks of course — always add leeks.
Aside from Chenopodium album, there is also red goosefoot (Chenopodium rubrum), which has a reddish stem. It is prepared exactly like common goosefoot. Other chenopodiums worth mentioning include strawberry spinach (Chenopodium capitatum), which produces a red berrylike fruit — edible but seedy — and tree spinach or purple goosefoot (Chenopodium giganteum). All of these should be started in flats and thinned to 8 inches apart in the garden after the threat of frost has passed, or seeded broadcast in the late spring. None of the chenopodiums just mentioned will cross with one another, since they are from different species; therefore they can be grown in a bed off to themselves. It is a good idea to keep them under control; once planted, they will return year after year after year.
There are actually two types of common garden nasturtiums, leaving out the exotic ones that produce edible tubers or the exquisitely fringed vining type known in the old days as Tropaeolum moritzianum, for which I will always have an eternal weakness. I am speaking simply of the small-leaved species called Tropaeolum minus, introduced into Europe in the 1500s, usually bush in habit, and the vining species known as Tropaeolum maius, introduced from Peru by Dutch botanist Hieronymus van Beverningk in 1684. While both species are sold under the rubric of nasturtium (the botanical name for watercress, to which they are not related), it is the large vining type that I recommend for the kitchen garden. Its benefits are obvious: it can be trained on a fence, and it lends a delectable backdrop that can be stripped daily for salads yet enjoyed throughout the summer season. And it comes in several colors.
Philadelphia botanist John Bartram propagated and sold it in the 1760s under the name Great Garden Cress and probably grew it much earlier. Christopher Sauer’s Pennsylvania German herbal mentioned it specifically in the supplement for 1764: “The pretty orange flowers that it produces in great profusion are not only quite decorative but, above all else, they are delicious to eat as well as healthful, thus they are served in salads.”
The orange-flowered cultivar was most popular in colonial America, although there were also yellow and crimson varieties. The orange variety that I raise is remarkably similar to the specimen illustrated in Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, so I suspect that it is still possible to find seed that does come close to many of the historical varieties. Botanist William Darlington noted in 1837 that the orange flowering variety was the only strain commonly cultivated at that time and this mostly for its exceptionally large seeds, which afford “a tolerable substitute for capers.”
“Tolerable substitute” depends entirely on how they are prepared. I prefer to put them up with fresh bay leaves and West India Burr Gherkins, but Hannah Bouvier Peterson’s recipe (1855, 119) is typical for the period: “Cut the green seeds of the nasturtiums with a piece of stem to each. Put them in a jar of cold vinegar.” A piece of the stem enhances the flavor, but I would rather my readers first boil the vinegar and use sterilized jars. To 1 1/2 cups of green nasturtium seeds, use 1 1/2 cups of white wine vinegar, 1 1/2 teaspoon of pickling salt, I clove of garlic, 6 peppercorns, and 2 fresh bay leaves. About 2 tablespoons of sugar might make this Victorian pickle more palatable to modern tastes, and there is no harm in adding three specimens of the Besler’s Cherry Pepper, well crushed to release their heat. The whole plant is rich in vitamin C, which is why early Americans considered it such a healthful food, but since cooking destroys the vitamin C, nasturtiums are most nutritious when eaten raw.
I recently read in a garden book that nasturtiums should be planted in greenhouses to keep aphids off valuable specimen plants. Nasturtiums are infested with black aphids during much of the summer season, and I cannot imagine why anyone would want to invite that sort of trouble into a closed environment, especially since greenhouse aphids have no other enemies but us. Nasturtiums do repel white flies and squash bugs, but only in the open garden, so there is some practical purpose in planting them along fences and bordering areas to keep the predators out. The result will be fewer pests but not a clean sweep, and I say this only because there are some gardeners who attribute more to this prevention method than they should.
Vining nasturtiums should be started indoors in flats and then thinned to pots so that the roots are not disturbed when the plants are moved into the garden. This species prefers full sun but will tolerate afternoon shade. Since they grow 6 to 8 feet tall, the plants require trellising or at least draping over a fence. Otherwise, they will sprawl over the ground and entangle themselves in anything nearby. For an abundance of seed for pickling, cultivate the vines like pole beans on poor soil. All nasturtiums blossom profusely when raised on poor, sandy ground, since this closely approximates their native habitat in South America. Overfertilizing will only produce abundant leaves at the expense of the flowers.
A few showy accents of Joseph’s Coat not only liven up the kitchen garden with brilliant color, the leaves make a gaudy addition to salads that is hard to resist when mixed with different colors of tomatoes and peppers. This is an old-time favorite that has been grown in American kitchen gardens since the eighteenth century, albeit mostly as an underutilized ornamental. The red, green, and yellow leaves may also carry patches of pink, bronze, even purple and brown. Visually, there are few garden plants that can compete with it.
In 1575 Leonhard Rauwolf saw Joseph’s Coat growing in the gardens of Turkish officials at Aleppo and thought that it was the Symphonium of Pliny (Dannenfeldt 1968, 247). For this mistaken reason he called it Papagoy Federn or “parrot’s feathers,” the name by which it is still known in Pennsylvania Dutch. To my mind, the most spectacular picture of old-fashioned Amaranthus tricolor appeared in the Hortus Eystettensis, which was recently republished (1994). That book was engineered into existence in 1613 by Basilius Besler, who also recorded the pepper. Given its early connections with kitchen gardens from Mogul India to Renaissance Europe, it is difficult for me to imagine a garden that would be complete without Joseph’s Coat.
Yet, like Golden Purslane, this creature of the tropics is not happy unless the weather is hot, hot, and hot. It is also a large plant, growing anywhere from 4 to 6 feet tall. This showy stature makes it a perfect frame for gates or an impressive backdrop for large cabbages like couve tronchuda or the edible tuber dahlia.
Seeds should be started indoors in March, seedlings thinned and potted, and the plants moved out of doors once the threat of frost has passed. A good rule of thumb to follow is not to plant Joseph’s Coat until it is time to plant corn. Cool spring weather will only set it back and may cause the stems to rot. The black flea beetles that attack eggplant also relish Joseph’s Coat. Insecticidal soap regularly applied normally keeps them under control. Spraying the plants with fish emulsion also seems to repel the beetles, I imagine because of the nasty way it tastes. Seed savers should note that the seed forms little tufts on the stalk and should be gathered in the fall when the plant begins to drop its leaves, or after the first frost.
Both Fearing Burr (1865, 283–84) and Vilmorin (1885, 318–19) referred to this delightful vegetable as Malabar nightshade, although it is not a nightshade by any stretch of the imagination. Indeed, that name is quite off-putting, for it implies that the greens may be poisonous, and I am living proof that they are not. Better to call it an odd sort of spinach, because that is what it tastes like, although to my mind it is infinitely superior. Perhaps spinach with a hint of brandy and okra would be a better description of its taste; rabbit fodder it is not. Both the “white” and “red” varieties were introduced from East Asia before 1830 and were raised in Europe primarily as hothouse plants. Out of doors, they transform themselves into vigorous vines climbing to 8 feet if conditions are right and can therefore be trained over arbors or fences around the kitchen garden.
The “white” variety is really a bright green. It cooks beautifully in a microwave oven, which does not destroy the flavor, but it is excellent raw and quite refreshing on a hot summer day. The “red” variety differs only in that it is tinged with magenta under the leaves and on the stems. The flowers of both are insignificant but produce black berries that will stain hands and clothing a bright and unforgiving purple — a precautionary note if there are children in the garden.
The flowers are self-pollinating and produce a seed that resembles a peppercorn, although buried in stainful fruit. Plants for the garden should be started indoors and thinned to pots so that they are large (as much as 8 inches tall) by the time they are set out in the garden. Planting is best done when the ground is warm enough for beans, since cool nights will only check the growth.
The plant thrives in summer heat and is one of the most drought-resistant of all the vegetables I have ever grown. It produces all season and puts every variety of spinach to shame. In fact, where Malabar Spinach can be grown successfully, I would simply forget spinach and thus save a great deal of anguish. Best of all, no insects seem to attack Malabar Spinach, not even Japanese beetles, so I have never had to do more than water it from time to time and restrain myself from pulling too many leaves before the vines are firmly established.
The reason I suggest planting large plants is that Malabar Spinach is a perennial in the tropics and thus slow to produce seed in short summer regions. It is normally cultivated as an annual, but for seed-saving purposes it must be planted early enough so that it blooms by September. Otherwise, seed will not be ripe when the plant is cut down by frost. It is very odd, the way Malabar Spinach reacts to frost. It will keep in the refrigerator two weeks without spoiling in the slightest, yet one breath of frosty air below 33 degrees Fahrenheit reduces it to green sludge. Then it really does look like kelp washed up on a beach, but not a beach that any crab would want to walk on.
For gardeners with a greenhouse or a large south-facing window, Malabar Spinach can be overwintered in large flowerpots — the plants do not have deep root systems. Seed can then be harvested the following season. The seed is ripe when the berries begin to fall off the plants. Wear rubber gloves when collecting them, to protect the hands from persistent stains. Gently mash the berries so that the seed is freed from the fruit. Put the mash in a large jar of water and let this stand until fermentation begins. Once the seed has sunk to the bottom and separated from the rotten fruit, scum off the floating material, strain out the seeds, and wash them in a strainer. Then spread them to dry on an absorbent surface. Properly stored, the seed will remain viable for five years. For those gardeners interested in dyestuffs, the juice from the berries need not be wasted; it can be fixed for dying cloth and holds up well against repeated washings.
Fearing Burr (1865, 288–90) listed sixteen varieties of orach, ample indication of its popularity years ago with American gardeners. Orach is truly an old kitchen garden vegetable that deserves more recognition. The plants are showy, and the leaves come in a variety of beautiful colors and textures. They make terrific salad greens and can be used like spinach, chard, or stuffed like cabbage rolls.
Bernard M’Mahon listed three varieties in his 1815 seed catalog: the Garden Orach (green), the Red-Leaved Orach (magenta), and the Purple-Leaved Orach (maroon). These correspond to three varieties still available through seed-saving networks and from small seed houses, and these are the three that I grow.
Since orach is wind pollinated and the varieties will cross, I have found it best to plant a crop of one variety in the spring and then a different variety in the latter part of the summer. Orach is day-length sensitive, thus it bolts quickly during the long days of summer, but there are plenty of other greens to take its place during that planting lull.
The plants are generally 4 feet tall when mature and therefore should be treated like corn, planted where they will not shade smaller vegetables. The best greens are harvested from young plants about 2 feet high. At this stage the leaves are tender and the flavor is most like chard. Orach should be planted 14 inches apart so that it develops into a bush with plenty of room to spread. Pruning the top will encourage it to branch. Leave about 6 to 8 plants for seed-saving purposes.
When the seed bracts are dry, the seed is ready to harvest. The seed is inside the bract membranes, which can be broken open. Otherwise, the bracts can be dried and simply stored in jars until seed is needed. Be certain to mix the seed from all the plants so that the next crop of plants represents a balance of seedlings from different plants.
An unusual and attractive South American vine only recently rediscovered by seed savers, Parà Cress is a salading with a flavor resembling pennyroyal. The plant sprawls on the ground in a riot of bronze and gray-green leaves with curiously shaped conical flowers that are yellow, tinged with red. The leaves produce a slight numbing sensation in the mouth, and therefore should be used only sparingly in salads. Yet the plant is so ornamental that it can be used as a handsome border plant in addition to its culinary features.
Most garden books suggest planting the seed broadcast where it is to grow, but I advise starting it in flats like lettuce — the seed even resembles lettuce seed. Seedlings can then be hardened off in small pots and planted out of doors once all danger of frost has passed. Parà Cress prefers a hot, dry location, but the tiny seedlings are extremely attractive to slugs. Once the plants are well established, slugs leave them alone. To discourage slugs during the initial growing stage, sprinkle diatomaceous earth around the seedlings on a regular basis. This cuts the undersides of the slugs when they crawl through it and kills them quickly. It is not poisonous and does not affect the plants. Just be certain that it is the coarse diatomaceous earth that is used, rather than the fine powdery type designed exclusively for swimming pool filters. One works against slugs, the other does not.
Seed is easily gathered in the fall from the flowers that turn brown. Roll the dead flowers between the fingers over a deep bowl. Winnow the seed by shaking the bowl and gently blowing the debris out. The gray seed is heavy and will sink to the bottom. Spread it to dry for a week on absorbent paper, then date, label, and store in an airtight container.
There are two types of perilla commonly grown among seed savers, the green and the red. The green variety is highly fragrant, the crushed leaf smells similar to lemon balm. Seed for the green sort was sent to England from Nepal in 1821 and the plants grown from it were depicted in Curtis’s Botanical Magazine (1822, 2395). It does not seem to have been given much attention in the United States. Only the red variety, introduced from Japan in the 1850s, became popular with our Victorian gardeners.
After the Civil War, red shiso was used extensively as a bedding plant, especially as a backdrop against which blue, pink, or white flowers could create a striking contrast, precisely as recommended in Joseph Breck’s The Flower-Garden (1858, 356–57). The plant has a great deal to offer in its favor, since it grows to a height of 18 inches, reseeds profusely, is not at all particular about soils, and thrives in either full sun or deep shade. The dried leaves even make a fragrant tea.
The Vick seed catalog for 1872 described red shiso as “very desirable for its foliage,” which was characterized as a deep mulberry color, a fair assessment. Its name in Japanese is aka shiso, aka meaning red. The Japanese use the leaves to color pickles. The plant is entirely edible, including the flowers, hence its other old name, Japan mint. Visually, in salads the leaves resemble Purple Ruffles Basil, but of course with an entirely different flavor.
Because both the green and red shisos are used extensively in Japanese cooking, especially in vegetarian and fish dishes, there has been a recent revival of interest in their culinary possibilities, particularly among followers of macrobiotics. Perhaps the time has arrived for red shiso to become a true salad herb; it is far more prolific and much easier to grow than lettuce, albeit not quite as tender.
Seeds will germinate in a matter of days during hot weather. Either sow in flats, then thin and transplant to the garden, or sow directly in the ground where it is to grow after all danger of frost has passed. The plant flowers late in the summer, then drops its leaves well before frost. It will cross with the green variety and degenerate into a hybrid with plain leaves and little flavor. Therefore, it must be raised in isolation for seed-saving purposes. Seeds must be gathered quickly because finches are fond of them and will eat much of the seed crop unless it is protected with bird netting once flowering begins.
I have always maintained that spinach is fickle and hard to grow, and I have had several long-time gardeners agree with me. A severe spring drought and a recent hot summer only fortified my conviction that tetragonia can overcome more adverse growing conditions than even the toughest variety of spinach, for tetragonia thrives on heat.
It does not look like spinach, but it certainly tastes like it, whether raw or cooked. The leaves are small and somewhat triangular, and the plant sprawls over the ground on stems sometimes as long as 2 feet. It is easy to cultivate, for the seed can be sown by scattering over the ground where it is to grow, and the seedlings then thinned out for salads.
Tetragonia was discovered by Sir Joseph Banks growing in Queen Charlotte’s Sound, New Zealand, during the 1770 voyage of Captain James Cook. It was not until Cook’s second voyage, however, that the plant’s culinary qualities were fully appreciated. Yet between its initial discovery and the 1820s, tetragonia remained relatively obscure. A report in the Annales d’Agriculture (September 1819) on Count D’Ourches’s attempts to cultivate it in France sparked considerable interest in international horticultural circles, and in 1822 Curtis’s Botanical Magazine (50, 2362) devoted an article to it. This more or less marked the official recognition of the plant in England and the United States. However, Charles Hovey remarked in the Magazine of Horticulture (1841, 138) that it never quite caught on in this country: it “attracted considerable attention, was noticed in the agricultural papers, and was grown to some extent for a year or two, but as soon as it lost its novelty, is cultivation was nearly abandoned.”
Nevertheless, tetragonia has had a small but consistent following in this country because it thrives in our hot summers and is generally free of pests, certainly more so than true spinach. But due to oxalic acid in the leaves, which is made more intense by certain soils, the plant seems bitter to some people, fortunately not the case in my garden. Flowers form at the base of the leaves and then develop into small green seed capsules. These can be picked and dried for next year’s planting. The flowers are self-pollinating and do not cross with spinach or any of the other greens listed in this section of the book.
For best results, plant tetragonia when the ground is warm enough to plant beans. My best crops are always the ones I plant in July. The seed is very sensitive to cool weather and may rot if planted too early in the spring.
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Photos and Illustrations Courtesy William Woys Weaver.