… master of none!
Strawberry spinach or strawberry sticks is a ‘vegetable’, that is frequently available as seeds, that wobbles about at the fringe of the usual range of garden crops. It seems like a really good thing – a plant that provides a spinach substitute when it is young but then surprises you with a crop of juicy, sweet berries.
The berries are all the more remarkable because this is a chenopodium (C. capitatum) and thus related to the common weed fat hen as well as quinoa and, less closely, to true spinach. The plant itself is native to North America, more especially in the cooler parts including much of Canada and Alaska and it can easily be imagined that it would be used as a food crop in earlier times, before other, more exciting, foods were available. It has many common names including the rather strange strawberry blite which, as you can tell by the spelling, is not a disease of strawberries – blite is a common name of many plants in the amaranth and beet families.
In the garden it is easy to grow and right now it is starting to ripen the masses of small ‘berries’.
Like most things that seem too good to be true, the reality of strawberry spinach is not quite as exciting as the hype.
For a start, the leaves are small, even at the young stage and although perfectly edible ( you need to eat in moderation because of the oxalic acid content – in common with ordinary spinach) it is hard work picking enough leaves for more than a taste. They can be used raw or cooked. When young the plants form a neat rosette of arrow-head-shaped, pointed leaves. And then, when they are ready, they branch into a huge clump of spreading stems with leaves that diminish in size as they reach the ends of the stems. Being a chenopodium the flowers are tiny and hardly noticeable.
The small clusters of flowers are produced in every leaf axil and every one seems to develop into a greenish ‘berry’ that eventually ripens to bright red.
It is a good indication of just how tasty these are that the blackbirds are stripping the red currants, the sylvanberries, the strawberries and the raspberries but – they have ignored the strawberry spinach!
You need to wait until the ‘berries’ turn from bright to deep red for them to be at their sweetest and most palatable but even then they are only just sweet and the flavour betrays their close family relationship with beetroot. They need a tug to pull off the stems but they are fairly firm so you do not get into too much of a mess picking them. They are fairly juicy but they are also pretty pippy too. I cannot really imagine mixing them with other ‘fruit’ but I think they would be best used in salads as a slightly sweet contrast to other veg. In this case I think they could be quite useful and make a dish look really good.
I am not sure quite who thought they looked like strawberries – they look more like raspberries to me but then they don’t taste like raspberries either.
You can sow these direct, where they are to grow, in spring but because a packet usually only contains a few seeds it is best to look after the seeds a bit more carefully. I sowed the seeds in March in cell trays. I sowed two or three seeds per cell and kept the trays in gentle heat (20c) till the seeds germinated. When the plants were strong, with the leaves of the plants overlapping, I planted them out about 20cm apart. My rows of veg are almost all 40cm apart and you can see from the photo above that the plants are BIG, dwarfing the neighbouring beetroot and white iberis – there are just eight plants here.
The plants are annuals and, so far, have no pests or diseases though I would not be shocked to find mildew on the leaves if we get some hot weather.
So, would I grow it again? Well the choice may not be mine because this plant usually self seeds and because I can’t see myself picking all the fruits I may get a carpet of seedlings next spring. I don’t think I would purposely grow it every year because it takes up a lot of space and it doesn’t quite cut it as a fruit or as a leafy veg. In theory it should be a nice crop for children to grow but I doubt they would be that enamored with the taste really. But I think it has some potential as an ornamental. The leaves turn red as the ‘berries’ ripen and as a carpet under taller, red-flowered plants it has some potential – plus you could eat it.