By Catherine Winter
There are over 20,000 edible plants on the planet, yet most people never branch out from the smattering of greens offered at their local grocery store. Sure, basic edibles like lettuce, spinach, kale, and cabbage are great and all, but there are so many other edible green vegetables to enjoy, from salty agretti to frilly, anise-flavoured chervil.
Many of these vegetables have far greater nutrition than the standard offering, and have gorgeous flavours and textures that are worth exploring. While you’re putting together your shopping lists of the great vegetables and herbs you’d like to explore in this year’s garden, consider trying some of the following greens. You’ll expand your palate, increase biodiversity, and might discover some new favourites along the way.
Also known as roscano or barba di frate, this frond-like Italian green has fleshy, needle-like leaves that look like chives and taste like a cross between samphire and spinach. They’re best braised with olive oil, garlic, and a bit of lemon.
- Scientific name: Salsola soda
- Zone: 3 and above. Sow seeds directly into your garden about 5mm (1/4 inch) deep once daily temperatures average around 23 to 26C (73 to 78F).
- Soil and sun needed: This plant thrives in poor soil, and doesn’t need too much direct sunlight. Keep the soil moist, but not soaked. Since this plant grows wild near the ocean and is often grown in saltwater-irrigated soil, it tolerates areas with a high salt content very well.
- Details: Agretti seeds are only viable for a very short time. These are not seeds that you can store for years and expect to germinate sometime in the distant future—you need to plant them within three months. This plant is very easily killed off by frosts, so if you live in a place that has a short growing season, start it very early.
- Scientific name: Smyrnium olusatrum
- Zone: 5-10
- Soil and sun needed: Partial shade, in moderately fertile soil, though it seems to thrive just as well in poor/depleted soils. It’s often found among ruins, particularly along walls where it can get plenty of shade, and it does very well as part of a hedgerow polyculture. The seedlings don’t transplant well, so it’s best to sow it in place in autumn so the seeds can striate over the winter.
- Details: The Romans were extremely fond of this ancient vegetable, and introduced it to the UK when they settled it a couple of thousand years ago (which I learned while watching Ruth Goodman’s Tudor Monastery Farm. Yay!) Alexanders were a vital food throughout Europe for centuries, and the estates of France’s Carolingian kings were packed with these plants, as they were favourites of the court as well as for the general population. It’s been used in a similar manner to lovage and parsley, and its leaves, buds, roots, and stem are all edible. Even the seeds can be used like cumin in soups and such.
- Note: Alexanders are biennial, so it’s a good idea to plant two patches of them, a year apart. That way you’ll have a crop every year as the beds alternate.
With its gloriously colourful seed heads, amaranth is as beautiful as a decorative plant as it is a food source. Very young leaves can be picked and eaten raw, but in general the leaves are best when cooked in the same way you’d cook chard, collards, or spinach. (Again, you really can’t go wrong sauteeing or braising greens with garlic and olive oil.)
- Scientific name: Amaranthus tricolor/Amaranthus hypochondriacus/Amaranthus caudatus
- Zone: 3 and up
- Soil and sun needed: Well-drained, loamy soil that’s rich in nitrogen and phosphorous, and full sun. Start seeds indoors 6-8 weeks before your areas last frost date, and transplant outdoors once there is no risk of nighttime frosts. You can also sow directly once the soil has warmed, but be aware that the seeds are very well liked by birds, and they’ll likely eat them before they can sprout.
- Details: Amaranth can thrive pretty well when neglected, but be sure to keep it well watered during dry periods. Nourish with compost tea or organic fertilizer a couple of times a season if you find that growth has stunted.
- Scientific name: Eruca vesicaria sativa
- Zone: 3 and up
- Soil and sun needed: Arugula does best in well-drained, fertile soil, but doesn’t thrive in extremely hot weather. It’ll do well in springtime and autumn, or in zones where summers don’t get too warm. Sow directly where it’ll get full sun. It’ll benefit from fertilizer once in a while, and keeping the soil moist will help to prevent it from bolting if the weather gets warmer than it likes.
- Details: Also known as roquette (or “rocket” in the UK), this spicy green is as beautiful raw in salads as it is sauteed or braised.
- Scientific name: Cynara cardunculus
- Zone: 6 and up; hardy to zone 8
- Soil and sun needed: Cardoon loves deep, rich, compost-filled soil and full sunshine. Although it will tolerate partial shade, it won’t thrive in it.
- Details: Grown mostly for its fleshy leaf-stalks and delicious stems, this Mediterranean plant is certainly one to try if you live in a warm enough hardiness zone. Close relatives to artichokes, cardoons have very similar growing requirements and can be fussy to cultivate, but they’re well worth the effort. You’ll need to start seeds indoors about 6 weeks before you’ll be transferring it outside, and it can’t be planted in your garden until 3-4 weeks after your area’s final frost date. They don’t do well in container gardens, nor do they tolerate companion plants well: plant these as solitary creatures.
- Note: Hummingbirds LOVE this plant, so be prepared to see a lot of them.
- Scientific name: Anthriscus cerefolium
- Zone: 3 and up
- Soil and sun needed: High compost, loamy soil, in partial shade. Chervil is ideal for cultivating in guilds beneath fruit or nut trees, but it needs to be sown directly: the seeds do not transplant well at all.
- Details: This beautiful, flat-leafed herb has been cultivated for both food and medicine for centuries, and was extremely popular during the medieval era. It has a subtle anise/liquorice flavour, and is lovely when minced finely and added to summer salads, especially those with fruit and nuts added to the greens. In French cuisine, chervil is one of the four herbs that make up the “fines herbes” group, along with tarragon, parsley, and chives. Chervil’s medicinal properties are subtle: it’s mostly used as an infusion to aid digestion, and to lower blood pressure. It may also ease insomnia.
- Scientific name: Claytonia perfoliata
- Zone: 2-12
- Soil and sun needed: Full sun to partial shade, sown directly into moderately fertile, moist soil. If you’re growing it in a container, make sure it has plenty of coir or peat, along with compost-rich soil.
- Details: Also known as miner’s lettuce and winter purslane, this hardy green thrives in cool weather and is an ideal winter green in zones 8 and up. Unlike regular purslane, this has no bitterness and instead has a sweet-ish flavour that’s somewhere between baby spinach and water chestnuts. Rich in vitamin C, these leaves will keep you from getting scurvy if you eat them regularly.
- Scientific name: Cichorium endivia, var. latifolia
- Zone: 4-10
- Soil and sun needed: Full sun, in neutral, compost-rich soil that has high potassium and phosphorous, but low nitrogen. If the soil has too much nitrogen, the plant might bold instead of growing into a proper head.
- Details: Escarole (or broad-leafed chicory) is a gorgeous leafy variety of endive that grows well in most climates, and is great both raw and cooked. It has a mild-but-pleasant bitterness, and is a key ingredient in many Italian dishes. (Here’s a tip: try escarole and white bean soup with a good, crusty bread and your favourite Pinot Grigio.) You can either start it indoors and then transfer outside after the last frost date, or sow directly once your soil warms.
Gai Lan (Flowering Broccoli)
- Scientific name: Brassica oleracea var. italica
- Zone: 3-10
- Soil and sun needed: This is a heavy feeder, and likes a rich soil full of composted manure. Start seeds indoors, transplant outside after the last frost. It does best in cooler climates, and bolts very easily during heat waves or hot summers.
- Details: More commonly referred to as flowering broccoli or Chinese broccoli, this is an Asian green in the brassica family that’s definitely worth exploring.
- Note: like any other brassica, this plant can be destroyed/devoured by cabbage moth larvae. It’s best to grow it beneath fine netting to keep the wee beasties away, unless you have chickens or ducks controlling such pests in your garden.
Good King Henry
- Scientific name: Chenopodium bonus-henricus
- Zone: 3-9
- Soil and sun needed: Full sun to partial shade, and although it does best in fertile soil, it tolerates poorer soils well and pretty much thrives on neglect. The seeds need cold striation in order to germinate properly, so it’s best to sow it in the autumn, or else in flats stored in the fridge for a few weeks before planting after the last frost.
- Details: Few people have even heard of this vegetable, let alone tasted it, but this popular iron age and Medieval green is well worth re-discovering. It’s been called goosefoot, poor man’s asparagus, Lincolnshire spinach, and markery over the centuries, but in any case it’s a wonderful perennial green that’s packed with iron, calcium, and vitamin C. It’s also one of the greens that was most commonly used in pottage, alongside leeks, peas, and chard.
- Scientific name: Chenopodium album
- Zone: 3-10
- Soil and sun needed: Nitrogen-rich, depleted soils, and full sun to partial shade.
- Details: Chances are that you already have this plant growing somewhere in your area, so it’s best to wildcraft for it first before deciding whether you need to plant it! Also known as goosefoot or fat hen, it’s a prolific edible that’s usually considered an invasive “weed” rather than the delicious, nutrient-rich food source it really is. Even if you don’t want to eat them, they’re ideal for feeding poultry, livestock, and even domestic herbivore pets.
- Note: Lamb’s quarters are high in vitamin A and calcium, which is great, but they’re also high in oxalic acid and should be eaten in moderation so as to avoid causing any strain on your kidneys.
- Scientific name: Rumex acetosa
- Zone: 3-9 (perennial in zones 5+
- Soil and sun needed: Full sun, in slightly acidic-to-neutral soil that’s well drained and moderately fertile. You can either sow it a couple of weeks before the last frost date in spring, or in late autumn so it can overwinter.
- Details: Sorrel, also known as garden sorrel, French sorrel, and spinach dock, is a gorgeous perennial pot herb with a tart, lemony flavour. In German, it’s known as sauerampfer, and is a key ingredient in spring and summer soups. It’s one of the first greens to pop up in springtime, often sprouting while snow is still on the ground. Its bitterness comes from oxalic acid (so don’t eat too much of it!), but it’s full of vitamins C, A, and magnesium, so it’s a good spring herb to replenish that which was depleted during the winter months/hungry gap.