Caucasian Spinach (Hablitzia tamnoides)

Caucasian Spinach (Hablitzia tamnoides)

I had planned for our next profile to feature two closely related, but quite different perennial, 'Spinaceous plants', to borrow a term from Webster and Parkes (1855), namely, Sea Beet (Beta vulgaris subsp. maritima) and Caucasian Spinach (Hablitzia tamnoides). Looking back over our last post, I also realise that - with my characteristic and wildly off-the-mark expectations about how long it will take me to do something - I promised this piece would materialize about a month or so ago... sorry if anyone was waiting! 

Anyway (and by way of an excuse, however flimsy), as I started to compile my various, scattered notes about both plants I realised that I didn’t have much to say that hadn’t already been said about the Hablitzia, so I started doing a bit of research. Now for better or worse I’m a bit obsessive when it comes to things like this, so after a while a little research had turned into quite a lot, and I suddenly found myself with a sizeable amount of material to digest. Now the last thing you want to arise out of any part of your work with edible plants are digestion issues, so to make life a little bit easier I decided to focus exclusively on Caucasian Spinach, leaving Sea Beet for a future post.


Inevitably, a lot of the general stuff I have to say about Hablitzia has already been said by others, and foremost among them, Stephen Barstow, as the section on Hablitzia in Stephen's book, Around the World in 80 Plants, remains one of the most informative pieces we have on Caucasian Spinach -
his earlier article in Permaculture Magazine, which I’ll say a little bit about below (and which you can access via Emma Cooper’s website here) comes in a close second.  As Alys Fowler says in her The Thrify Forager, Stephen is now very much a part of the history of Hablitzia, particularly the part about its reintroduction to our gardens.

While I'm doing acknowledgements, I should also say that have benefitted tremendously over the years from the experiences of those experimenting with Hablitzia, and from the generous advice of more experienced growers, shared to the Friends of Hablitzia Tamnoides, the Caucasian Spinach (hereafter Friends of) Facebook group. If you have found your way to this post, want to learn more about Hablitzia, and are not already a member of that group, it is well worth joining. Anyway, that brings the prefatory remarks to an end, so let's look at Caucasian Spinach.

Caucasian Spinach

Like Common Spinach (Spinacia oleracea), Caucasian Spinach has traditionally been placed in the Goosefoot family (Chenopodiaceae). That is still the case except that last I checked, the emerging consensus was that the Chenopodiaceae should itself be included within the Amaranth family (Amaranthaceae). I’m not sure what, if any consensus has been reached yet about how to adjust the nomenclature to accommodate this, but one approach that seems to have been adopted by a number of authors is to talk about the Amaranthaceae in both a broad sense (sensu lato, abbreviated to s.l.), and a narrow sense (sensu stricto, abbreviated to s.s.), and to go on treating the Chenopodiaceae as a family nested within the Amaranthaceae s.l.

Whereas it’s more commonly cultivated cousin belongs to the Chenopodioideae, however, Caucasian Spinach is part of the Betoideae, together with Beta and three other genera. Like Hablitzia, two of these, Aphanisma and Oreobliton, are monotypic or, if you like, unispecific, i.e., they only contain a single species (A. blitoides, an annual plant native to North America, and O. thesioides, a subshrub native to Northern Africa)(Kühn 1993). The number of species in the third genera, Patellifolia, varies from one to three, depending on who you talk to, and is sparsely distributed across Northern Africa, the Mediterranean, and Macaronesia. Beta is the largest genus, but as I’ll discuss it in the (hopefully soon to follow) Sea Beet post, I won’t say anything more about it here.

Botanical drawings of Hablitzia: (1) Eduard Regel’s 1887, Gartenflora : Zeitschrift für Garten- und Blumenkunde; (2) Heinrich Gottlieb Ludwig Reichenbach’s 1830 Iconographia botanica seu plantae criticae - Eighth Volume - (plate 754); (3) Adolf Engler, 1887, Die Natürlichen Pflanzenfamilien : nebst ihren Gattungen und wichtigeren Arten, insbesondere den Nutzpflanzen; (4) C. A. M. Lindman’s 1884 ‘Om Postflorationen och Dess Betydelse sasom Skyddsmeldel for Fruktanlaget’.

 

Caucasian Spinach is a long-lived herbaceous perennial climber. In fact it is one of the very few vines in its family (Kadereit et al. 2006) - as one source put it, Hablitzia 'is remarkable and altogether anomalous in the order to which it belongs by its tall climbing habit’ (here). It is also, likely one of the longest lived plants in its family - one plant growing in Norrtälje, Sweden, outside local toy shop, Dubbelboa Leksaker, is reported to be over 50 years old (There are several pictures (here, here, here and here). And for those who care about these things, it is a diploid (2n=2x=18) with a basic chromosome number of 9 (Darlington & Wylie, 1955, p.76).

Hablitzia was first described and documented for the international scientific community, by Friedrich August Marschall von Bieberstein, in the Mémoires de la Société impériale des naturalistes de Moscou (t.5) (available here). It was Bieberstein, who gave it its botanical name. The generic epithet, Hablitzia, is a Latinized version of Hablitz, a reference to Carl Ludwig Hablitz, the 18th Century naturalist, vice-governer of the Crimea, and author of Description of the Region of Tauris under Its Situation and under All Three Kingdoms of Nature – who also lends his name to Salvia hablitziana (now considered a synonym of S. scabiosifolia).

Tamnoides means like, or resembling, Black Bryony, Tamus communis (although WFO record Dioscorea communis as the currently accepted name here) - a hardy relative of the predominately tropical and subtropical true yams (Dioscorea spp.). The young shoots, known as Respounchous in France, are eaten (cooked to render them safe for consumption) there, and in other parts of Europe. Caucasian spinach shares this epithet with at least three other plant species, (1) Romanoa tamnoides, a plant that was at one point placed in the same genus as the Mountain peanut, Sacha inchi (Plukenetia volubilis), but about which I know very little else, (2) the Bristly Greenbrier (Smilax tamnoides), reputed to have edible roots, and (3) a wild relative of the delicious and prolific Achocha/Caigua (Cyclanthera pedata), C. tamnoides (edibility unknown... to me at least). I’ll come back to Hablitzia’s resemblance to Tamus in a moment.

The common name Caucasian Spinach, which splits the difference between the Finnish köynnöspinaatit (Sprouting or Vining Spinach) and the Estonian Kaukaasia Ronimalts (Caucasian Vine), seems to have been proposed by Stephen Barstow, and then settled upon by Permaculture Magazine when they published his 2007 article. For the moment it seems like a very good option - although Spinacia tetrandra, a wild plant in the same genus as common Spinach, which grows on the stony steppes of the Caucasus and Kurdistan (Astley & Ford-Lloyd 1981), may also have some claim to that name. There are several other candidate English common names, including the generic name Hablitzia, Climbing Spinach (a name that is already sometimes used as an alternative to Malabar or Ceylon Spinach as names for Basella alba), Sprawling Spinach, Spinach Vine, Caucasian Spinach Vine, Caucasian Mountain Spinach, and Scandinavian or Nordic Spinach – the latter also proposed by Stephen, in allusion to the fact that it was in Scandinavia that its edibility seems to have been most appreciated, possibly first discovered (like others I have struggled to find any reference to its use within its native range). Of these, only Hablitzia is in widespread use, and while some prefer it as a name to Caucasian Spinach, when writing about it, I’m happy to have both at my disposal.

Description

Caucasian Spinach has green, heart-shaped (cordate) leaves, often slightly crimped, but without serration or lobing, which taper to a narrow point (acumiate), and sometimes have very soft, almost silky hairs on them. It's lookalike, Black bryony also has green, broadly cordate leaves, but they are glossy and hairless, with quite pronounced primary veins radiating outwards from the point where the leaf base meets the petiole, while Hablitzia’s leaf-surface is more or less matt, and the veins are arranged around a single, central axis. The stems of both are generally green, with noticable ridges running their length, but those of Black Bryony can sometime have a purple or copper tinge to them, and Hablitzia’s can be flushed red.

Hablitzia flowers are individually quite small, a lighter green than the foliage, perhaps greenish-yellow, and like little five-pointed stars, a fact that is reflected in the Norwegian name, Stjernemelde, which means Star-chenopod (Barstow 2014). They are borne profusely in an arrangement that I’ve seen described (in reputable sources) as a raceme, a panicle, and a thyrse. Disagreement about how best to describe the structure of complex inflorescences isn’t that uncommon in botany, nevertheless, as I’m not a botanist myself, I shall opt for the less strictly applied adjectives, and say that they are racemose, paniculate and/or thyrsoid. The flowers also have another quality that I will mention below.

Black bryony likewise has numerous, small, greenish-yellow flowers, which appear around the same time, from late May through July. However, they have six rather than five petals, and are followed by plump, shiny green berries that ripen to red (and should be handled with care, as the pulp contains minute, needle-like calcium oxalate crystals, known as raphides). Hablitzia on the other hand produces tiny, glossy black seeds, sometimes in abundance.

The pictures below show the aereal parts of the two plants side by side (at least, if you're viewing it full screen on a laptop, if not, the first, third, and fifth pictures are Hablitzia, the second, fourth, and sixth are Black Bryony).

In autumn, the aerial parts of both plants die back, but where the Tamus (or Dioscorea) retreats to a large, irregularly shaped subterranean tuber, Hablitzia almost always has its head either above the ground or very close to the surface. Even over winter, you can usually find, at the base of the old stems, a crown of more or less elongated buds or incipient shoots, which usually remain dormant until around Februrary. Around the primary shoots, there are often many smaller, secondary buds ready to take over if the first flush is damaged (or eaten), which can be seen if you carefully remove the soil around the base of the plant. Occasionally the crowns seem to raise up out of the ground – although I suspect it is, rather, the surrounding soil washing way – exposing the thick, fleshy roots, which are somewhat like those of Sea Kale, and giving the dormant plant the appearance of an insane caudiform. I’d be curious to see whether, like Sea Kale, Hablitzia can be propagated via root cuttings below the crown, without buds, but have yet to try doing this so I will have to report back later.

Incidentally, the roots are not – at least on any of the plants we’ve grown – ‘turnip-shaped’, despite the fact that they are described as such in several older sources (all of which may just be parroting the earliest, a German text, Eduard Regel’s Gartenflora, from 1852, which describes them as ‘fleischiger’ and ‘rübenförmiger’, i.e. fleshy and turnip-shaped or napiform).

Hablitzia plants can easily grow to a height of around three meters with adequate support. However, they don’t have tendrils or suckers, and their stems seem to be only very weakly twining, so they climb mostly by twisting their leaf stalks around the structures upon and through which they grow, as many Clematis species do. Where support is lacking, however, they seem fairly happy sprawling almost horizontally across the ground or cascading down over the edges of the container, raised bed, or similar. Across their native range, they have even been observed hanging over the openings of caves (a picture here).

As its common name suggests Hablitzia hails from the Caucasus, a region which lies between the Black and Capsian seas and includes Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and the Southern-most parts of Russia, or perhaps more specifically from the Southern part of Caucasia known as Transcaucasia, where it grows at altitudes up to around 2,100masl. According to most reports it is most commonly found in dry, deciduous or mixed woods and forests, particularly in shady spots, amongst rocks, in ravines and along rivers. Where most Goosefoot family members prefer full sun, Caucasian spinach is - like its cousin, Good King Henry (Blitum bonus-henricus) - one of the few shade-loving species, a fact that is also reflected in its peculiar affinity for caves - in his 2009 article in Permaculture Activist, 'Food Exploration in the Caucasus: An Encounter with Wild Hablitza' Justin West, reports finding plants inhabiting the better part of half the floor of one cave in the mountains of Armenia.

As well as the Caucasus proper, Hablitzia has also been recorded in North-Eastern Turkey, where it has naturalized, as well as further East, in Iran, and West, in Greece (see here, and Assadi 1983). And Stephen Barstow reports that there are also relic populations and individual plants scattered across Scandinavia (several in Sweden, Finland and at least one in Norway), a fact that reflects the curious history of Hablitzia.

Below are a few photos of Hablitzia growing. We lost our oldest plant last winter, and sadly we didn't take any photoes of it in its full glory. The first two pictures are courtesy of Stephen Barstow.

History

From its home in the Caucasus, Hablitzia seems to have begun its travels across Europe in the early 1800s. It was grown in the UK, at Kew and Cambridge Botanical Gardens, as early as 1828 (Barstow 2014) – only 11 years after Bieberstein first described it – and at Glasgow around ten years after that (Loudon 1840). Kew seem to have had plants on the go at least until 1931, the last year in which it appears in their Bulletin of Miscellaneous Information. The three British institutions seem to be among the first botanic gardens to grow Hablitzia, and it isn’t until the second half of the 19th Century that references to its cultivation elsewhere starts appearing with any regularity, at least in the literature I consulted - and I should probably say a word about my sources to begin with.

Botanic Gardens often run exchange programmes, through which they make plant material available to other institutions. Many have a long history of doing this, and many of the records of each year’s offerings – frequently in the form of an Index seminum – are in the public domain. It occurred to me that by looking at these, and at similar documents, I could start to build a picture – albeit, likely, a very incomplete one – of Hablitzia’s journey. To this end I went through as many of the ones on https://archive.org/ and the Biodiversity Library (https://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/) as I could before my eyes started to go funny and I decided it was time to stop reading digitised manuscripts! If someone has the patience for it, there are probably a few more.

Amongst these I found records of Hablitzia being cultivated at the Accademia delle Scienze, Padua, Italy in 1842, The Museum D’Histoire Naturelle de Paris, France in 1850 (it is also listed in their Index seminum in 1886 and 1892), and the Botanic Gardens of Munich, Germany in 1852, and Grenoble, France, in 1856 (Visiani 1942; Brongniert, 1850; Martius 1952; Verlot, 1857). Then there is a gap in the timeline, and the next ‘sighting’, so to speak, is in 1885 in Iceland, where a team investigating germination rates of various plants included it in their study (here) - unfortunately nothing is said about the fate of the plants obtained. Around the same time, it appears to have been introduced to the Berlin Botanical Gardens, who began offering it in their seed exchange in 1887, and two years after that, in 1889, it is recorded as growing in Ferrara, Italy. By 1896 it had also made its way to Switzerland (at the Chateau de Crest, Geneva)(Barstow 2014), and in 1899, it is recorded at the Botanic Gardens of Rome. Shortly before that, however, it seems to have hopped the pond, as by 1898 there are records of it growing at the New York Botanic Garden.

At some point in the late 19th Century, it also found its way to Scandinavia (Barstow 2014). I came across one reference to Hablitzia growing at a Botanic Garden (the Burgius in Stockholm, Sweden) in 1891 (Wittrock & Juel 1891), but Stephen notes that around 1870 it was already being introduced into gardens as an attractive climber. Although the plant never became very popular, it was grown in some of the biggest manor house gardens, and within a few years  people had discovered that the leaves were also edible (Barstow 2014). Indeed, in 1876 Hablitzia had already appeared in a list of ‘Kitchen Vegetables’ in the Official Catalogue of Sweden – a kind of synopsis of the activities and knowledge-base of the various governmental departments, which was presented at an International Exhibition held in Philadelphia. The entry, in all of its salient details reads, ‘Salad is obtained from the following plants... Hablitzia’ (Sidenbladh 1876, p.219). Around the same time, Frederik Christian Schübeler, also notes in his Viridarium Norvegiucum, that it has been cultivated 'here and there as a spinach plant in Sweden' (Barstow here). Apart from the fact that it was – or seems very likely that it was – in Scandinavia that its edibility, and use as a vegetable seems to have been discovered, one of the most striking things about Hablitzia’s Scandinavian story, is that it seems to have persisted there, at least in a few places, about which I'll say a little more below.

From the late 19th Century onwards Hablitiza also starts appearing in English-language gardening books, although never as an edible. For example, it is discussed in several works by William Robinson between 1870 and 1894 (Alpine Flowers for English Gardens (1870), Hardy Flowers (1872), and The English Flower Garden (1893), The Wild Garden (1894). There are also a few references from around this time to plants growing in private gardens in the UK. In 1878 the British periodical The Gardener’s Chronicle, refer to a plant in the garden of a Mr Wilson, at Weybridge (Anon. 1878) (likely the George Fergusson Wilson of Heatherbank, Weybridge referred to in other editions), with ‘profuse foamy masses of greenish flowers...[which] could not fail to attract attention’ (p.50). And in 1881 The Garden mention another plant growing in the garden of a Mr Joad (Anon. 1881)(likely the well-known gardener George C. Joad of Oakfield, Wimbledon, who also donated a substantial collection of Alpine plants to Kew upon his death later that year). Both plants were apparently thriving.

Caucasian Spinach starts appearing more frequently once we get to the 20th Century – in Krakow, Poland (1904 - it continues to appear in their Selectus e Seminario until 1911) Madrid, Spain, and Budapest, Hungary (1905), both Dijon, France, and Cologne, German (1906), and in the same year at Château Vilmorin, Verrières-le-Buisson, France (Ogród Botaniczny Uniwersytet Jagielloński, 1904, 1907 and 1911; Hortus Botanicus Madrid, 1905; Királyi Magyar Tudomány Egyetemi Növénykertben 1905; Hortus Botanicus Divionensis 1906 and 1932; Botanischer Garten Cöln 1906; Vilmorin 1905). Two years later it has found its way to Halle, Belgium (Botanischen Gartens Halle 1910 and 1913) and to the Central Experimental Farm, part of the Arboretum and Botanic Garden, Ottawa, Canada (1908)(Macoun 1908), The year after it was grown in Sassari, Sardinia and Lisbon, Portugal (1909), and the year after that in Frankfurt, German (1910)(Dell Istituto Botanico Della R. Universita di Sassari 1910; Horti Botanici Scholæ Polytechnicæ Olisiponensis,1909; Botanischer Garden Frankfurt am Main 1910).

It also continues to feature, in a small way, in gardening books – e.g. in Samuel Arnett’s The Book of Climbing Plants and Wall Shrubs (1902) and Ernest Cook’s Trees & Shrubs for English Gardens (1908) – although the descriptions therein are usually quite brief and, for us at least, not particularly illuminating. A couple of nurseries had also begun to offer it to the general public. In Europe, the German Nursery Haage & Schmidt stocked it between 1896 and 1938 and Henri Correvon’s nursery Floraire in Switzerland did so between 1903 and 1914. Although, as mentioned above, it was grown at Château Vilmorin, and figures in their various plant books, I could find no record of them having actually offered it for sale themselves.  It is also listed for sale in George W. Park’s Park’s Floral Guide and Magazine (Park's company was based in Pennsylvania), from around 1906 through to around 1915.

At this point my sources give out, but I suspect that with a bit more digging, other parts of the story could be uncovered. For example, some details of the more recent history of Hablitzia, within the Nordic countries at least, have been uncovered by Leena Lindén, of the University of Helsinki, who has collected numerous accessions within Finnland. Parts of the overview report she wrote in 2010 have been shared to the Friends of group. Whatever happened in the intervening years however, Hablitzia never became well known within Europe, and in the English speaking world it seems to have been more or less forgotten. Forgotten, that is, until 2007, which brings me to its reintroduction.

In the Summer issue (No. 52) of Permaculture Magazine the Stephen's article, which I mentioned earlier, appeared with the title ‘Caucasian Spinach – The Unknown Woodlander’. Having been introduced to Hablitzia by Lena Israelsson, who discusses it in her 1996 work, Köksträdgården: Det Gröna Arvet (The Kitchen Garden: Our Green Heritage – sadly unavailable in English), Stephen realised after growing it himself for several years, that one of the best perennial spinach plants for a temperate climate was almost completely unknown outside of Scandinavia – his article did much to rectify that!

Although Stephen’s article gave the first – as far as I am aware – detailed profile of Hablitzia in English, a picture of it, captioned ‘Climbing Spinach (Hablitzia tamnoides) from the Caucasus’ had appeared in Ben-Erik Van Wyk’s Food Plants of the World: An Illustrated Guide, two years earlier, in 2005 – although the only other information Van Wyk gives, is that it is the leaves which one eats (p.421). Having seen this entry, Jonathan Bates, co-author (with Eric Toensmeier) of Paradise Lot, set out on an independent quest to find, grow and experiment with Hablitzia, and in 2008 this resulted in another article on Caucasian Spinach, this time in Permaculture Activist (No. 68), titled ‘Hablitzia: Climbing Spinach - A New Perennial for Cold Climates’. As the momentum slowly gathered, a third article appeared, in the same publication the year after, by Justin West (mentioned above, in the previous section).

Although these works helped to introduce many more people to Hablitzia, when it came into our lives a year later, in 2012, it still wasn’t very well known outside of a small (albeit steadily growing) community of enthusiasts - in spite the fact that by then it had now graced the pages of several books: Martin Crawford includes a very short profile in his 2010 Creating a Forest Garden, and a slightly expanded one in his 2012, How to Grow Perennial Vegetables, and Alys Fowler profiles it (and Stephen in his role of Extreme Salad Man) in her 2011 The Thrifty Forager.

Our first plant came – as several of our most exciting plants have done – from Alison Tindale, of The Backyard Larder. At that point, having never encountered it before, we only had what Alison told us to go on, e.g. that it was a perennial, vining spinach, which seems to tolerate shade, and which it was rumoured, could live for quite a long time and withstand extremely cold temperatures. Beyond that there wasn’t a lot to tell, as – bar the above – there simply wasn’t much information available online or off. Moreover, most of the people interested in Hablitzia – if they had got hold of plants at all – were still experimenting with it. Nevertheless, as those growing it shared their experiences, in online forums, and various Facebook groups, a small body of information started to emerge.

Since then, Hablitzia has been mentioned in at least four books on the topic of edible plants – I couldn’t find any others, but I’d be surprised if these were the only ones, as it deserves to be in them all. Martin Crawford mentions it very briefly again in his Food from your Forest Garden. It is included in Eric Toensmeier and Jonathan Bates’ 2013. Paradise Lot, but only in a table of edible Herbaceous Vines, which notes that it has edible shoots and leaves. Then there’s Around the World in 80 Plants (2014), which I've already mentioned, and which gives what is probably the most detailed overview of Hablitzia available in print. And, finally, after being introduced to Caucasian Spinach by Telsion Andrews of Aster Lane Edibles (Ottawa, Canada), Niki Jabbour includes it in her 2018, Niki Jabbour’s Veggie Garden Remix: 224 New Plants to Shake Up Your Garden. We'd love to hear from anyone who knows of any other sources - particularly if they include interesting recipes or information that I've neglected to include here. 

The harvested leaves and shoots - first image courtesy of Stephen Barstow, second our own.

Eating Hablitzia

If you've stuck with me this far and you haven't already tried or grown your own, you are probably anxious to learn how to use this unusual vining "Spinach". And although you have probably already guessed that part of the answer is 'as you would regular spinach', you will be happy to hear that that is not quite the whole story. 

Hablitzia leaves can be eaten raw or cooked. The young ones in particular are delicious, but even the older ones make for good eating - they do not, for example, develop any real bitterness once mature, as some greens do. Although the older leaves of plants grown in full sun, particularly if they have suffered drought stress, are generally better cooked.

As well as the leaves, the young shoots, the tender vine tips and the emerging inflorescences can be used as a vegetable, again raw or cooked. The shoots, can be picked as they start into active growth, but they are particularly good when harvested from the crown, while still dormant/semi-dormant, as at this stage the undeveloped leaves are still tightly packed and folded upwards, so that they press close against the stem, adding up to a slightly more substantial vegetable, a bit like Asparagus. What's more, early in the season they are often the most remarkable magenta colour (I'll say a bit more about this in the next section). They can also be blanching a few weeks prior to harvesting, which may make them a little sweeter, but we do not by any means find this necessary to enjoy them, as whenever you pick them, they are delicious, even simply sauteed in butter, and dressed with a little lemon juice and salt and/or black pepper.

Below Hablitzia shoots (left - another one of Stephen's) and flowers (right)

I said above (although quite a way above now) that the flowers have a noteworthy quality, and that is their scent... Individually it isn't particularly pronounced. Even when flowers abound, you probably wouldn't notice it from any great distance. But if you draw close to a particularly floriforous Hablitzia, you might notice the air filled with scent almost exactly like crushed Coriander (Cilantro) leaf. Interestingly, when I raised this on the Friends of group, another member who had also noticed this, mentioned that she found it - as she did regular Coriander - rather unpleasant. What makes that interesting is that there is a story behind why some people have a strong aversion to Coriander - of a cluster of olfactory-receptor genes, one, called OR6A2, encodes a particular receptor that is highly sensitive to aldehyde chemicals such as those which contribute to the flavour of Coriander (see here). Perhaps Hablitzia contains similar compounds to the unrelated umbelifer - if so OR6A2 may well play a role in our perception of Hablitzia flowers too!

Anyway, the reason I held back this little tidbit unti this point is that, having noticed their curious aroma a few years ago, and being a firm fan of coriander, I decided to taste a handful of the flowers earlier this year. The first thing I noticed was that there was some, albeit slight, bitterness, which was surprising as I'd never detected any in the leaves at any stage. There was also, to my delight, a mild herby aftertaste, clearly reminiscent of the aforementioned Unfortunately it is rather mild, and it seems - for later attempts to replicate my findings were more often a failure than not - only detectable in the newly opened flowers. Alas, I will not be chopping up Hablitzia flowers for inclusion in my Quesadilla any time soon. If you decide to try the flowers, it should be kept in mind that the pollen of some Chenopodiaceae (e.g. Chenopodium album, Bassia scoparia, Salsola pestifer) are known to give rise to asthma and allergenic rhinitis - you have been warned!

Although they are rather small, the immature inflorescenes can also be eaten, and on mature plants they are often produced in abundance. Lightly steamed, they are excellent added to pasta.

There is something of a question mark over the edibility of other parts of Hablitzia. In November 2012, after being asked whether he had ever tried the root, Stephen apparently took the plunge and tried some. In Around the World in 80 Plants he reports that raw (after scrubbing), they were slightly sweet with a pleasant texture. Steamed, they lost their sweetness but he writes that, served with a garlic, chilli, and Cuban oregano (Plectranthus ambionicus) butter - which would, or course, go a long way towards improving most things - they were good. However, when I contacted him, he told me that on their own they were slightly unpleasant unlike the sweet tasting raw roots, and he hasn't made a habit of eating them since. As we don't know much about their chemical composition, it is probably best that we don't either, at least until someone publishes a phytochemical analysis that gives us a green light for doing so.

The seeds also fall into the categories of 'unknown edibility'. Maybe it’s just me, but they look as though they should be edible, like tiny, shiny black quinoa. Of course, that is no way to judge de facto edibility, especially as within the Chenopodiaceae seeds vary quite a bit in these terms. For example, at one end of the scale there is Quinoa itself, an unquestionably delicious pseudograin, that requires only minimal processing - and there are others (particularly within Chenopodium) which are edible, but have a higher saponin content and therefore require a little more processing. But at the other end there is Spinach which can, it seems, cause constipation so bad that it requires surgery (Henri A. Van Der Zee) - Spinach seeds are structurally very different from Hablitzia seeds, so the issues may lie in that, but I I'd rather spare myself that particular indignity.

So there you have it, an edible that - to update slightly what I said at the start of this post, and to borrow a two more woefully underused terms from Webster and Parkes - , at the very least, straddles the boundary between the Spinaceous, the Acetarious, and the Asparaginous.

Recipes

In his article (mentioned above), Jonathan Bates includes two recipes, one Georgian (Ispanakhi Pkhali) and one Finnish (Pinaattiohukaiset). Although neither are traditional Hablitzia recipes, he is at least trying to imagine a cuisine in which it might, if things had been different, have once figured. I haven't tried either yet, and I shaln't reproduce his recipes here, but if you want to see what these meals look like made with spinach you can find an example of the former here, and of the latter here. Two of our own recipes, however, are included below.

Vegan Hablitzia Quiche

Ingredients:
400g Tofu (or 396g if you use Cauldron as I did)
125g Gluten-Free Plain Flour
50g Gluten-Free Self-Raising Flour
Vegan Margarine (we used Vitalite)
1 tbsp Flax Seeds (Brown or Golden) (optional)
100-125ml Coconut Milk*
2 tsp Wholegrain Mustard
A pinch of Himalayan Black Salt †
Black Pepper (to taste)
A handful of Fresh Parsley
100g Cheese substitute of your choice (I used Violife)
1 x Red Onion
3-4 medium sized Tomatos
A couple of handfuls of Hablitzia (leaves and shoots)

* the cow's milk alternative, not the stuffy you get in a tin and use in Thai Curries. Most vegan milks would work just as well, I just happen to like this one so always have it in.
† anyone who read our profile of Bladder Campion will have heard me talk about this before. Also known as Kala namak, is a unique, kiln-fired rock salt, with a distinctive sulphurous taste and smell, that in very small amounts gives a mild egg-like  flavour to meals. It works well here, but you can use regular salt instead if you prefer.

To make the base mix the flours, then add the butter and combine using your fingers, until it has a light consistency similar to breadcrumbs.

If using flax seeds, place these in a bowl prior to this and combine with roughly 100ml of boiling water, leave this to stand for a few minutes, then add the water gradually to your mixture by pouring it through a seive to remove the seeds. You won't need all of it, just enough that the the resulting dough holds together when pressed into a ball between your hands, without it being too sticky. If not using flax seed, simply add a little cold water and aim for a similar consistency. Next greese your quiche dish with a little margarine.

Even with eggs Gluten free shortcrust pastry doesn't hold together great. Roll it out as best you can on a pre-floured surface. It tends to break apart a little at the edges as you do this, but you can use your hands to press it back in on itself. Once rolled, lift it in one piece if you can, or try to move it in as few pieces as possible, into your dish. If it has broken, make sure each piece overlaps with the ones adjacent to it and press them into each other to join (a drop, and only a drop, more water can sometimes help). Alternatively you can simply flatten the dough and place in the centre of your quiche dish, then use the palms of your hands to press it so that it fits.

Once your base is ready blend the Tofu, Coconut Milk, Mustard, Salt, Pepper, Parsley and Cheese (if you like you can keep some of the Cheese back to sprinkle on the top). When finished it will look a bit like houmous (/hummus), but it will have a thinner consistency - I'm struggling to think of a suitable comparison, maybe sponge cake mix. Chop the Onion and mix this in until evenly distributed. Then pour or scoup the mix into your base.

Cut the Tomato however you please, and wash the Hablitzia then add both. Because the tofu mix will be thicker than the egg/milk you use in a regular quiche you need to press the fillings into it a bit otherwise they just sit on top.

Place the uncooked quiche on the middle shelf of your over and cook on around 190°C for 30-40 minutes. Remove from the over when the crust is golden brown and the filling appears to have set (don't worry if it's still a little soft, it will become firmer as it cools, and a little moisture is a good thing). We had ours with salad of Hablitia leaves and assorted edible flowers from the garden.

Homemade Caucasian Spinach Pizza (Habizzia?)

Ingredients:
350g Strong White Bread Flour
Olive Oil
2 tsp Dried Active Yeast
1 x Tin/Carton Chopped Tomatoes
A few handfuls of Hablitzia
A handful of Golden Garlic (Allium moly) Flowers (or similar)
1/4 of an Aubergine
A few Baby King Oyster Mushrooms
1 x Large Red Onion
A handful of Kalamata Olives
1 x Carrot
Tobasco Sauce (to taste)
Golden Marjoram (a couple of sprigs)
Rosemary (a couple of sprigs)
Lovage (a few leaves)
Salt (a pinch)
Black Pepper (to taste)

Start by dissolving the yeast in about 150ml water. Leave this to stand for half an hour or until it develops a good head of foam. Pour (or if you prefer, sift) your flour into a large mixing bowl. Add the salt and a dash of oil, then make a small well in the centre and begin stirring in the water/yeast. Keep stiring until the mix is even, and leave to stand for another forty minutes of so, or until the dough has doubled in size. It can help to wipe a bit of oil on the inside of the bowl so that the dough doesn't stick as it rises.

Press the dough down to knock the largest air bubbles out of it, then turn onto a pre-floured surface and kneed well. Then leave to one side while you make the sauce.

Peal the carrot and chop it finely. Chop 3/4 of the onion finely as well, and put the other 1/4 aside. Add some oil to a pan, and when hot add both. Simmer on a low heat until they are soft, then add the tomatoes. Turn the heat up slightly, and bring the sauce back up to temperature, then cook for 10 minutes or so.

Chop the herbs finely, and add them, with a pinch of salt, some black pepper, and a dash of Tobasco sauce, then cook for another couple of minutes.

Cut the Aubergine, the Mushrooms, and the remaining 1/4 Red Onion, then put to one side (although not necessary, I actually decided to heat some oil in a pan and turn the Aubergine and Mushroom in this a few times, to coat them ready for crisping up in the oven).

Stretch (or roll) your base to size. Transfer this to a baking tray or a pre-heated Pizza Stone. Add the sauce, and the toppings appart from the Golden Garlic and Hablitzia. Then place in a pre-heated oven on the middle shelf at 200-220°C

Keep an eye on your pizza while it cooks, and a few minutes before it is ready add the Golden Garlic flowers, the Hablitzia and a drizzle of nice Olive Oil. When ready, remove from the oven and serve.

IMG_6177

Nutritional Information

Until fairly recently there hasn’t been much nutritional information available for Hablitzia. However, some work has been carried out at the University of Helsinki, Finland by Leena Nurmi, and in 2016 she shared some of the findings of her Master’s Thesis, written on Hablitzia, to the Friends of group. On analysis Hablitzia leaves were shown to contain high amounts of carotenoids, folates, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus and zinc. Its levels of several common limiting factors – oxalic acid, nitrate, cadmium and lead – were also found to be within permissible thresholds.

I was unable to get in touch with Leena directly, but eager to learn more, I did a bit of digging and managed to track down the abstract from her thesis, titled Köynnöspinaatti, Hablitzia tamnoides - uusvanha varhaiskesän lehtivihannes: siementen kylmäkäsittely ja lehtien ravintoarvo (available here). Now I don’t speak Finnish, so I enlisted the help of Google Translate, for which reason you should probably take what follows with a pinch of salt.

Assuming I have not been misled by faulty translation software, the abstract to Leena’s thesis does give us a bit more informaiton, because Leena’s study also looked at how Hablitzia’s values compare to those of New Zealand Spinach (Tetragonia tetragonioides). Her findings were that, on a fresh weight basis, Caucasian Spinach measured higher for carotenoids, folate, tocopherols, alpha-linolenic acid (an Omega-3 fatty acid), protein, sucrose and all other mineral and trace elements, except for manganese.

We can put that in context by looking at the values for the Tetragonia, which I was happy to find numbered among the many records the USDA hold on various crops and food stuffs. I’ve also included the values for Spinach, as another point of comparison

A couple of qualifications are in order. (1) Leena's study may have compared Hablitzia to a particular sample of New Zealand Spinach, in which case their values might differ slightly from the USDA ones. (2) The USDA gives a value for total sugars, whereas it looks like Leena’s study focused upon sucrose, a specific sugar. (3) And their Vitamine E values are for α-tocopherol.  Although this is the primary form of Vitamin E, it is worth nothing that this is only one of eight compounds which exhibit Vitamin E activity, the others being β-, γ-, and δ-tocopherol, and α-, β-, γ-, and δ-tocotrienol). Even if my (Google’s) translation isn’t off, Leena’s study may have looked at tocopherols plural. If it is off, then she may well have looked at total Vitamin E. (4) I didn’t include the values for alpha-linolenic acid in the above tables, as the USDA information doesn’t enable you to distinguish between different isomers of fatty acids with the same numerical abbreviation. The values they give for Common Spinach (0.138g) and New Zealand Spinach (0.066g), is for “18:3 undifferentiated”, which includes the Omega 3 fatty acid Alpha-linoleic acid and the Omega 6, gamma-linoleic acid.

As well as trying to squeeze as much information as possible out of the Finnish work, I also consulted a few other sources to see what, if anything else I could dig up on the constituents of Hablitzia. The results weren’t staggering, although I didn’t really expect them to be, and the only other information I found is summarized by Hegnauer (1964), who reports the presence of the flavonoids Quercetin and Kaempferol, and the polyphenols, Caffeic acid, p-Coumaric acid and Ferulic acid in Hablitzia leaves (p.413). They also report that the whole plant contains 1% (by dry weight) of the methylamine Betain, (citing Stanek and Domin (1909/1910) on p.417).

The only other noteworthy feature of Hablitzia that I can think to include here is that, like Beetroot, and other members of the Chenopodiaceae, it produces betacyanins, a class of compounds structurally related to alkaloids, rather than the more widely distributed anthocyanins – any red colouration seen in the stems and leaves is, therefore, due to these. I mentioned above that the young spring shoots can take on a wonderful magenta hue - that is partly becasue they have yet to develop much chlorophyll, but it also suggests that of all the parts of Hablitzia they are perhaps the richest in Betacyanins (as you can see from the picture below this can also extend down into the roots).

Barstow pic

Cultivation

Caucasian Spinach can be grown from seed or propagated vegetatively, and both methods are fairly easy. We have found that fresh seeds germinate readily, and that they do so more evenly and over a shorter period when sown outside, while temperatures are still relatively cool, e.g. in March and April. In general we don't use any special pre-treatment, however, some people find that a short period of cold-stratification help. When sowing Hablitzia seeds, we scatter them onto the surface of a mixture of peat-free compost and sand, which we then cover with a thin layer of horticultural grit.

One qualification to the above is that all of the seeds we have tried were from our own plants, most of which are from Scandinavian populations (possibly all - looking to add a bit of genetic diversity into our stock we bought a couple of plants form an eBay seller and don't know the provenance of these). Those who have grown plants from seed collected wild within its native range report that germination can be less reliably and occur somwhat irregularly over longer periods.

Hablitzia flowers are hermaphrodite and plants seems to be self-fertile. However, some plants may be more self-compatible than others, as some seem to find that plants only produce large amounts of seed if there are two or more genetically distinct plants growing close together. Our mature Hablitzias often self-seed freely - although the seedlings are vulnerable to slugs and snails. One question we haven't been able to answer definitively is how long Hablitzia seeds are likely to remain viable after they mature. However, a post to the Friends of Hablitzia group, reports success germinating seeds that were stored for around four years in less than ideal conditions.

When it comes to vegetative propagation of Hablitzia, there are a couple of options. One is to lift and divide established plants, as you would other clump-forming perennials. The best time to do this is once the current season's growth has died back or early the following season before they have started into active growth. We have also had success with cuttings. After removing shoots from the base of the plant with a small heal - just afer they start into growth in early Spring - and cutting away the lowest leaves, we apply a small amount of liquid rooting hormone, and place them in sandy compost, in a cool, sheltered spot out of direct sunlight. Plants started from cuttings tend not to grow very strongly in their first year, but by the end of autumn 5 -10 buds should be visible at the base of plants ready to start into growth the following season. As mentioned above, we are unsure whether Hablitzia can be propagated by root cuttings, but plan to try this in Autumn and will report back.

A plant started as a cutting, and having been grown on for a season, at this point entering its second year (left); One of our plants which I am ashamed to say I left in a large container in a spot where it suffered several weeks of exposure to summer sun and insufficient water (right)

First year plants are quite slow growing, and for best, long-term results, we therefore recommend that you do not harvest from them heavily until their second year, when plants become much more vigourous.

Where most Goosefoot family members prefer (often require) a position in full sun, Hablitzia, like its cousin, Good King Henry (Blitum bonus-henricus), can tolerate reasonable amounts of shade. In fact, we have grown plants in full sun and partial shade, and our experience has been the same as that of others, namely, that it shows, as Jules Rudolph wrote back in 1897, 'a marked preference' [un preference marquee] for the latter (p.329). In particular, it seems to benefit from having its feet in the shade - presumably because this helps the soil to remain cool and retain more water during the hottest parts of the year - as, although the plants themselves grow well enough in full sun - at least in our climate - unless they get plenty of water, weeks of glaring summer sunshine eventually impacts on the quality of the leaves and shortens the window within which they are at their prime.

Many of the plants in circulation come via Scandinavia, and are likely very cold-hardy - some survive in Finnmark, in the Northern-most part of Norway, are known to withstand temperatures down to -30 (Barstow 2014). In its home in the Caucasus wild populations of Hablitzia occupy a number of habitats, some of these may grow at considerable altitude, and share the hardiness of the Nordic stock, but it is unlikely that they are all this hardy, even if they are relatively so.

Caucasian Spinach seems to tolerate a range of soils conditions. However, the conditions a plant can tolerate and those under which it flourishes are not necessarily the same, and while there is some truth to John Weather's claim that it ‘flourishes in ordinary garden soil’ (1911, p.263), that really depends on what you imagine the soil in a typical garden to be like. He, at any rate, seems have regarded Hablitzia as having slightly more specific requirements a decade earlier when, in A Practical Guide to Garden Plants, he writes that it requires ‘a good, rich, loamy soil' (p.765). In agreement with this, a short entry from 1880 in the periodical The Garden attributes the unprecedented vigour of a plant in cultivation at Kew to its 'having been planted two years ago in a deep bed of loam and manure’ (Anon. 1880, p.79).

Two factors that do seem to be important are drainage and pH. Although Hablitzia likes a good deal to drink when it first commences into growth, it seems to resent wet feet in winter - I that a song? It feels like it should be one! This seems to be well established as an entry from 1893 in the The Gardener's Chronicle, urges readers to 'bear in mind the importance of dryness at the root during the winter' (Anon. 1893. p.236). In his New Illustrated Encyclopedia of Gardening (1960), Thomas Everett reiterates this: 'stagnant moisture is fatal to the roots in winter' (p.815). We have only lost one Caucasian Spinach plant to date, and I'm almost certain that this was the reason.

As for pH, Hablitzia seems to have a preference for neutral or alkaline soil, which is not entirely surprising given that many members of the Chenopodiaceae thrive on soils with fairly high concentrations of alkali-salts (sodium chloride, sodium carbonate, gypsum). And while it seems to do fine on weakly acidic soil (around pH 5), but once your universal indicator starts to look like a glass of Chartreuse you're probably pushing up against its limits. If you don’t know the pH of your soil, it might be worth avoiding spots where calcifuges, like Heathers or Rhododendrons thrive, areas where conifers dominate the vegetation (as the decomposition of their fallen leaves/needles tends to lower the soil pH) and anywhere intensively fertilized with ammonium-based fertilizers (which can also lower pH), as Hablitzia may struggle to take up the nutrients it requires in these conditions. Although not always necessary, you could also consider adding wood ash or a liming agent (chalk, ground limestone, domomite, hydrate lime) to your soil to raise pH.

Although, as I have already said, not strictly necessary, most people prefer to provide Caucasian Spinach with something to climb up or through. Any large trellis, garden obelisk, bean pole wigwam, or similar should work fine, and a number of older sources suggest using it to cover an arch or pergola - by extention, it could, I imagine be used cloth a fence as long as it had a suitably open structure. But perhaps the most satisfying way to provide Hablitzia with support is to use a living trellis. Placing it at the base of a tree, particularly a deciduous one, which will have an open canopy early in the year so that the emerging shoots have a little extra light, can work very well. In fact, The Garden recommend Hablitzia be 'placed at the base of a tree, so that the slender stems can cling to the trunk and develop its large head of feathery green blossoms' (Anon. 1881, p.71) - this is, they add, how Mr Joad (mentioned above) treats it.

While on the topic of growing Caucasian Spinach near trees, a question that has come up on the Friends of group is whether it could survive under Walnut trees - particularly Black walnuts which are known to exert an especially pronounced allelopathic activity on surrounding vegetation. Unfortunately I do not have an answer to that yet, and as we do not grow Walnuts ourselves I can't perform the test easily. That said, closely related Beta vulgaris has shown some tolerance to oxidised juglone (the compound responsible for the unpleasantness)(see here).

As well as trees, you might want to try large bushy shrubs - we have recently placed a young plant at the base of a large Hebe, growing next to one of our Black Lace Elders, the hope being that in subsequent years it will use both for support. Black Bryony seems to flourish when allowed to weave its way through hedgerows, so perhaps Hablitzia would do so too. Large herbaceous perennials, annuals or biennials are likely to be too small early in the year to provide full support for Hablitzia, so might work better in combination with other means, or at a little distance from the crown - the Valerian that ours decided to cling to (pictured below) would have been quickly overcome if our Hablitzia hadn't spread several feet sideways first.

Hablitzia isn’t known to suffer from many pests or diseases, although it is a host plant for a species for Tortoise or Leaf-mining Beatle, Cassida seraphina var. hablitziae, native to Turkey and Kazakhstan. And in one study it is reported that plants were successfully inoculated with the leaf spot virus Cercospora beticola (here). There is also some suggestion that in warmer climates, high humidity, particularly during the hottest parts of the year, can cause plants to sulk or worse, simply give up the ghost.

Final Thoughts

I've tried to be as thorough as I can in this post, so hopefully I haven't missed anything too important - although do let me know if you think I have. We will no doubt write about this delicious and prolific vegetable again in future posts. Although it'll be six months of so before we have an opportunity to do so, I'd like to include some recipes on here with young Hablitzia shoots - I am a little annoyed at myself for not having had the foresight to take some photos earlier in the year. Anyway, I'm not very good at rounding off things like this, I hope you've found this interesting and informative, but as I have now said all I have to say about Caucasian Spinach, let's just leave it at that.

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Wittrock, V. B. & Juel, H. O., 1891. ‘Catalogus Plantarum Perennium Bienniumque in Horto Botanico Bergiano Annis 1890 et 1891 Sub Dui Cultarum’ in Acta Horti Bergiani 1(3). Stockholm: Isaac Marcus Boktr. Aktiebolag.

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Anon. 1880. The Garden : an illustrated weekly journal of gardening in all its branches (24th July 1880)

Anon. 1881. ‘Hablitzia Tamnoides’ in The Garden: An Illustrated Weekly Journal of Gardening in All its Branches (5th November 1881).

Anon. 1884. ‘Hablitzia Tamnoides’ in The Gardener’s Chronicle (9th August 1884.) London: Bradbury, Agnew, & Co.

Anon. 1893. ‘Plant Notes – Hablitzia tamnoides’ in The Gardener’s Chronicle (26th August 1893) London: Bradbury, Agnew, & Co.


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