Caucasian Spinach (Hablitzia tamnoides)

Caucasian Spinach (Hablitzia tamnoides)


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Caucasian Spinach, also known by its generic epithet, Hablitzia, is a cold-hardy, shade-tolerant, perennial climber. A member of the Amaranth family (Amaranthaceae), it is closely related to Common Spinach, Beetroot and Swiss Chard, and more distantly, to Quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa) and the semi-domesticated Good King Henry (Blitum bonus-henricus) which we also offer.

A highly productive vegetable, Hablitzia is grown primarily for its leaves, which taste very similar to regular spinach. The young leaves can be enjoyed both raw and cooked, but like spinach, the older ones tend to be tougher and are much improved by cooking. The young shoots – which are produced in abundance on mature plants and can often be harvested right through the winter – are also excellent and make a more substantial vegetable. They are particularly good lightly steamed and served like asparagus with butter or a little salt, pepper and lemon juice.

Although it originally hails from the Caucasus and North-eastern Turkey, where it can be found in woods, among rocks, in ravines and beside rivers at altitudes up to around 2100m above sea level, most plants in cultivation, including the ones that we are offering, came to the UK via Scandinavia, where it was introduced as an ornamental in the late 1800s.

If temperatures are mild it can start into growth in late winter, but it usually waits until mid-Spring to really get going. In summer, mature plants produce hundreds of small, greenish blossoms borne in dense racemes. Strangely, these have a faint scent of crushed coriander leaf. By about November the top growth starts to die back, and plants can be cut back to the crown. Often next year’s shoots are already visible as large swollen buds. This is a great time to divide more established plants, as you would other clump-forming perennials such as Hostas.

Caucasian spinach can live for a very long time, often upwards of 20 years. In fact one plant in Norrtalje, Sweden has apparently grown in the same spot for over 50 years. They seem to do best in free-draining but rich, loamy soils with a pH in the neutral to alkaline range. If you have acidic soil you might consider introducing some lime, or growing it in a planter – we have had a lot of success growing it in large tubs. Unlike regular spinach, which needs a lot of sun, Hablitzia can tolerate quite deep shade, although we’ve found that plants tend to perform better in the UK in partial-shade or dappled sunlight. If grown in a more exposed site it helps to add a mulch in summer so that your plants don’t dry out too much, as this makes the leaves tougher. Hablitzia also likes to have something to climb up or through, and once fully established can reach about 3 metres in height – although you can keep it smaller by eating the tops. In the past we have let them grow up through the lower branches of our Damson trees, which provide a natural trellis.

So far we haven’t had winter temperatures low enough to test the limits of its cold-hardiness, but it comes from stock that has proved hardy down to at least -25°C, so it is likely to survive in even the harshest UK climates. Our plants are also pretty much untroubled by pests and disease, and while slugs and snails will sometimes take a nibble, they rarely do much damage once plants are past the seedling stage.

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