Good King Henry (Blitum bonus-henricus)

Good King Henry (Blitum bonus-henricus)


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Good King Henry – also known as Linconshire Spinach, Mercury and, somewhat unfairly, Poor Man’s Asparagus – is a hardy, perennial herb, with a long history of use and many culinary virtues. It grows across the British Isles, usually around old farm buildings and ruins, on roadsides and waste ground, and in and along the edges of mature woodland.

A member of the Goosefoot family (Chenopodiaceae), it was previously placed in Chenopodium – the same genus as Quinoa (C. quinoa), the traditional Mexican herb Epazote (C. ambrosioides, since moved to the genus Dysphania), and edible wild plant Lamb’s Quarter/Fat Hen (C. album). In recent years however, there’s been a bit of a reshuffle, and it is now placed in Blitum, along with the so called Strawberry spinach (B. capitatum, previously C. capitatum).

Almost every part of this plant has been used for food. The very young leaves are edible raw. Used in this way we find these a tad on the bitter side, and prefer to mix them with other, milder leaves. However, blanching them, by excluding light as the leaves first emerge in spring (as you might for Sea Kale or Rhubarb), greatly improves the taste.

The most common, traditional use is to eat them cooked. In both the Mediterranean and across Eastern Europe, they have been used for centuries, simply boiled and/or fried (often with a little garlic), or in soups, stews, vegetable pies, and frittatas. Prepared in any of these ways all but the very oldest leaves, of plants grown in full sun, make for very good eating. We’ve found that, like spinach, Good King Henry pairs very well with potatoes and/or chickpeas, particularly in spiced dishes, like curries or Saag aloo.

As well as the leaves, the stems, immature inflorescences, seed and even the root having also been used for food. We have tried all but the latter. The stems, are treated like asparagus, and are best when cut just beneath the soil once they reach a height of between 15 and 20cm. They are then cooked, with or without the leaves still attached, for about 10 minutes, and served with butter. The immature flower buds can be used like a small, sprouting broccoli, and boiled until tender (which usually takes 5-10 minutes).

The small, black seeds can also be harvested in autumn for use as a pseudo-grain. While it isn’t generally as productive as its close relatives, Quinoa and Amaranth, it is much more suited to life in a cool/cold climate. In fact, plants are very cold hardy. They also grow quite happily in shade, and can remain productive for 7 or more years. To prepare the seeds for eating, it is best to soak them overnight and then rinse, as this leaches out saponins (also present in freshly harvested quinoa) which can otherwise make them quite bitter. Then just cook for 15-20 minutes

Plants are easy to maintain, and don’t seem to be bothered much by pests or disease. And will thrive on any moist, nitrogen rich soils, in full sun and partial shade.

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