Keeping Things Green With Spinach Varieties

An ancient plant with staying power, spinach will keep your salad fresh all summer long. And heirloom spinach varieties are full of vitamins to keep you going.


| January/February 2012



Popeye Illustration

Gritty dressed as Popeye with spinach.

Brad Anderson

Spinach is a garden essential that provides an abundance of fresh and cooked greens early in the season. Although several plants are variously referred to as “spinach,” including New Zealand Spinach (Tetragonia tetragonoides), Malabar Spinach (Basella alba), Amaranth (Amaranthus spp.), Mountain Spinach or Orach (Atriplex hortensis), “true” Spinach is Spinacia oleracea, botanical Latin for “this one’s edible.”

Ancient origins of spinach

While different spinach varieties are grown worldwide in a range of temperate climates, its center of origin is Southwest Asia, around present-day Iran and Iraq to Central Asia. It probably was domesticated from a wild spinach Spinacia tetandra. Cultivated before the 7th century in the Sassanid (Persian) Empire, it reached China from Nepal in 647, where it was known as the persian green, and spread to Japan. It reached Italy via invading Saracens in 827 and diffused more slowly northward, reaching Spain by the 11th century, and the rest of Europe in the Middle Ages. Its first Western appearance was in 1485 in a German cookbook, and it was not planted in England until 1568.

In 1804, three types of spinach are listed in America in Philadelphian Bernard McMahon’s broadside catalog, and spinach was certainly grown earlier. Thomas Jefferson cultivated spinach at Monticello in 1809 and 1812. It did not see a large increase in popularity until much later in the 19th century. Spinach consumption by children received a boost in the 1930s with the advent of Popeye the Sailor.

Which spinach? Prickly, crinkly or smooth?

The two main types of spinach are characterized both by seed and leaf type: the crinkle leaf type, or savoy, and the smooth-leaved variety, especially used in commercial processing. A range of intermediate leaf types, sometimes known as semi-savoy, are also available.

Spinach seeds are generally referred to as round – which is relatively smooth – or prickly, with seeds that are sharp and pointed borne in a capsule with several spines. If you have ever tried removing the seeds of prickly spinach from the stalk by hand, you quickly learned why it is called prickly. It hurts. Spinach is a dioecious plant, meaning male and female flowers are borne on different plants.

Spinach is a member of the Amaranthaceae, a family populated by such edible notables as beet, chard and quinoa, plus orach and the tasty weed, lamb’s-quarters. Leaves and stems of many of these plants are characterized by low concentrations of calcium oxalate. Consumption of too much calcium oxalate can lead to the formation of kidney stones or reduce the body’s ability to uptake minerals and vitamins. Some plants such as skunk cabbage or jack-in-the-pulpit, both members of the Arum family, have very large concentrations making the plant poisonous and creating an intense and sometimes long-lasting burning sensation when chewed. Taro (Colocasia esculenta) is an edible Arum widely cultivated in the wet tropics for its foliage and tubers, which contain high amounts of calcium oxalate and must be specially treated before consumption.





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