Mild tasting, spinach like, shoots and leaves that climb well, grow in shade, are perennial and can be grown from seed.
I can’t believe this vegetable, officially called Hablitzia tamnoides, exists. It seems to go against everything gardeners think of when they compare required effort and sun with the ability to produce food.
There is so much to love:
This is a perennial, so it will grow back year after year once it is established. Over a cold winter it will look like it has disappeared forever, never to return, but this is a hardy plant. The shoots will make a reappearance in late winter / early spring. This means that once established it makes a great filler of the hungry gap. The shoots can be harvested a couple of times before you leave it to grow in the spring.
Cold and shade
It prefers shade. It can tolerate half a day of sun. This feels rather unnatural, as we often talk about edibles needing a MINIMUM amount of sun. Pretty much every garden, especially those in the city with its large buildings, have some areas of deep shade. When you have a small garden this just feels like a waste. It’s not where you want to put your garden furniture as it’s not fun sitting OUT OF the sun. Almost nothing thrives. It’s a good place for a compost patch or a wormery but my the deepest shade is right next to my back door. The compost bin would live there if I was willing to share my kitchen with the clouds of fruit flies that have taken up residence in the compost. I have a constant urge to grow food in every available space and this and the hostas are my shade loving perennial saviours.
So we have 3 plants. One is in the deepest darkest shadiest part of the garden where it grows well with the hostas and wild garlic. One is under a fig tree. This was an error on my part that worked out OK. I didn’t realise how quickly and how large the fig tree would grow, but the Caucasian spinach does well scrambling up the branches in the shade.
Easily grown from seed
The seeds need a period of cold (stratification) before they’ll sprout. This sounds complicated, but all you need to do is sow BEFORE winter in a pot and just leave it outside to do its thing. If you sow in a pot, you can be sure of what you are growing before you place it in situ. I think bindweed can look a little similar.
Though bindweed has rather attractive flowers, I would advise you to eradicate it as soon as you see it. Once it takes hold it can be impossible to get rid of. It is also not edible.
The beauty of growing from seeds means that it’s easy to transport, save for another year and give to friends.
As I said, with the small garden, there is an urge to be able to use up every little bit of space. So, not only can you eat the early shoots, you can eat the leaves as it turns into a vine. If given something to climb, it will happily scramble up without any need to maintain or tie up. This is where climbers or tall plants are the most efficient. With the Caucasian spinach you get excellent production food per square foot of earth.
By early June there wass a twining messy clump of heart shaped leaves. Here it is has reached around 1.5m but could reportedly grow to twice that if given something that tall to climb. It got to the top of the frame at 2m this year.
Taste and texture
So after all it’s ease of growing it wouldn’t be worth it if it tasted rubbish. Caucasian spinach tastes wonderfully inoffensive. It is a green you can use lots of. It’s not sour like sorrel. It’s not bitter like many perennial greens. It’s just basically milder tasting than spinach even, and has the advantage that it doesn’t make your teeth feel furry the way that actual spinach does.
The young leaves feel thinner and not as succulent as spinach can be though.
The leaves can be used wherever spinach is used. They boil fine, fry fine, can be used to bulk out the vegetables in sauces and can be eaten raw in salads.
It prefers alkaline or neutral soil which is perfect for my garden. This may not be a bonus if you have a garden full of acidic soil. However, there are some things that actually REQUIRE acidic soil like blueberries, raspberries, kiwis and plenty of things that won’t mind acidic soil. Alternatively you can add lime to the soil, but that is something I would be far too lazy to do. An easier option would be to grow in a pot that you keep under alkaline conditions (though this may still involve adding lime).
So my third plant is in a very large pot full of compost. It’s large enough to accommodate the roots and I keep it well watered enough so it doesn’t dry out. It is doing terribly. I suspect it is a combination of the acidic compost (I did a soil test of the compost I use) and because it gets better sun than the other two plants.
I suspect soil pH is quite an important factor, but I’d have to wait till next year when I’ll move the potted one into more shade in order to draw a full conclusion.
It seems to be fairly resistant to the usual suspects in my garden.
So far the Caucasian spinach has survived the pigeons, the caterpillars, the aphids, the shield bugs. My biggest problem in the garden tends to be powdery mildew – especially with the brassicas. So any leafy green that is not susceptible to powdery mildew gets bonus points.
The only problem that I’ve had with Caucasian spinach is leaf miners. The little grubs live safely nestled between the layers of the leaf. If you were to look at the leaf from both sides you’d not be able to see the grub. Traditional pesticides wouldn’t help you here. Luckily I don’t use pesticides so it’s not something that has vexed me. Regular harvesting means that I’m often scrutinising the leaves. This means that as I see any leaves with signs of leaf miner I just pull the leaves off and bin them in food recycling. This removes the pest from the local environment so they can’t spread.
There are many things to love about this plant. I’ve only been growing it a couple of years so I’m interested to see how it’ll get on in the future and how long it will continue to survive happily without my intervention. I basically want more food with no more effort.
Me? Lazy? Totally!