You may have noted two rather similar plants have colonised the Forest Garden over the summer months. You may even have spent a lot of time removing these very same plants from your vegetable patches! If so, you might be missing a culinary pleasure. Both are edible and have a long pedigree as a source of food, both here and in other countries. Both are members of the Goosefoot family, chenopodiaceae, given that name because of the characteristic shape of their leaves.
The first is Fat-hen, Chenopodium album, and the second is Common Orache, Atriplex patula. Both are abundant on disturbed ground and sea shores.
Fat-hen first. In some countries (e.g. in Australia, where fat-hen is regarded as an invasive weed) it is a pest. Why? Because it’s very competitive – successfully so and often displaces crops and reduces their yield considerably. But in Northern India the plant is cultivated as a valuable source of food, where it is known as bathua and eaten in curries. It is high in Vitamin A and C and a useful source of vital trace minerals like manganese, potassium and phosphorus. It is closely related to that wonder-food, quinoa. Like spinach, it’s a good source of calcium. It was eaten by Vikings and Romans and archaeologists have found much older traces of it mixed with what we would think of as more conventional grains.
Its taste is described as a ‘bit cabbage-like’, and its flowers which are like elongated broccoli can be cooked and eaten as such. It is quite high in oxalic acid, however, so should not be eaten to excess.
It has some medicinal qualities. Notably, its leaves are a source of ascaridole which as well as adding flavour is known to expel round and hook worms from humans and animals. Possibly a diet rich in fat-hen was one way of countering the intestinal worms that were common before modern vermicides and better hygiene practices. When crushed, its roots can be used in soap, and oil obtained from the crushed plant used as an emollient.
As its name suggests, both seeds and leaves are good animal feed, especially for poultry. It’s also an important constituent in the diet of farmland birds like yellowhammer, greenfinch and linnet. Seed can pass through the gut of birds, cattle and pigs so is likely to turn up in farmyard manure.
The second plant, Common Orache, is very like its close relative fat-hen. It is sometimes known as saltbush and again, the clue is in the name. It is also edible but possibly more to your taste as it is saltier, a bit like a salty spinach. It has this additional quality because of its fondness for saline conditions and is often found along the shore. At the Forest Garden, we may have inadvertently imported this plant when we used rotting seaweed as compost as it likes to grow on – you guessed – decomposing seaweed! A great foraging plant, you can eat the leaves raw or fried in oil. Usefully, its seeds are reputed to have laxative properties.
Because of its salt-loving habits, it can be grown to lower the salt content of contaminated soils, particularly those contaminated by road salt.
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Credit: Photo and text by Jan
DISCLAIMER: Any medical properties mentioned in this blog are meant for informational purposes only. They are not meant to be used to diagnose, treat, prescribe, prevent or cure any disease or to administer in any manner to any physical ailments and are not intended as a substitute for the medical advice of a trained health professional. Herbal remedies can also cause allergic reactions. Please do your own research and consult your heath care professional before treating yourself or anyone else.