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Runner-up greens

Alternative cooking greens? I found too many. Here are the ones I regret deciding against.

Two were so pretty! aibika, or flowering okra (Abelmoschus manihot) grows five feet tall, with hibiscus-like flowers colored pale yellow with a maroon eye. The palmate leaves, high in protein for a vegetable, are cooked like spinach, added to soups or omelets, fried, or blanched and added to salads. Since this plant is an okra, I'd expect a slightly peppery flavor. It needs dependable moisture and full sun.

Red Malabar spinach (Basella rubra)has tiny little pink flowers, which become dark purple berries; dark green leaves and deep red/purple vines set them off prettily. This one I wanted to put in a big window-box size self-watering planter my daughter Wendy gave me, on the edge of the porch floor, with strings up to the ceiling for the plant to climb on. It needs dependable moisture and likes almost full sun. It would shade my eyes when I use the chaise lounge behind it. Unlike true spinach, it produces like crazy in hot weather, but is supposed to taste similar.

The only one both perennial and hardy around here was a chicory, in the same species — Cichorium intybus — as the roadside weed, cornflower, with its true-blue flowers. The first year, the jagged-edged chicory leaves form a rosette which looks much like a dandelion plant. Like two other members of this species, Belgian endive and radicchio, the variety I was looking at — 'Red Rib' — has a slightly bitter flavor, which I relish for its contrast with other tastes. But it has a taproot, and needs deep soil: not a good choice to grow in a container.

Buckhorn plantain or minutina (Plantago coronopus) also got rejected due to its taproot. This foot-tall herb with grass-like leaves is very popular in Italy — where it's called erba stella — for adding a crunchy texture to salads.

Perhaps hardest to reject was mache, aka corn salad or lamb's lettuce (Valerianella olitoria or V. locusta). Crowded rosettes of six- to twelve-inch, spoon-shaped leaves, grow well in cool weather; with protection the plant can be harvested almost all year. In hot weather it sends up a flower stalk with little pale-blue flowers, and may self-seed. I love its mild, nutty flavor. But it too needs deep soil. Luckily, it's not too hard to find in groceries.

© Copyright 2006 Catherine Holmes Clark

Published in the six Nashoba Publications papers on Friday, 12 May 2006

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For more information
About the plants mentioned in the article:
  • Aibika, flowering okra, sunset hibiscus (Abelmoschus manihot)
  • Malabar spinach
    • Basella alba
      • Johnny's Seeds has green Malabar spinach which they appear to have mislabeled as B. rubra.
      • The Kokopelli Association, in France, says B. alba leaves have very little oxalic acid.
    • Basella rubra - has darker green leaves and deep red/purple stems, also stronger flavor. Can't help but wonder if that means more oxalic acid, but I can't find info on it.
      • Johnny's says red Malabar spinach has a stronger flavor.
      • Hirt's -- who sell the seeds -- have a picture showing the pretty little flower buds.
      • Rosemary Basil has more info.
  • Red rib chicory-- Cichorium intybus 'Red Rib'
    • Red Rib - at Johnny's Seeds
    • Cichorium intybus - database entry at Plants For A Future, "a resource centre for rare and unusual plants, particularly those which have edible, medicinal or other uses."
    • Cichorium intybus page - at Excellent pictures of the roadside weed.
  • Minutina, erba stella, buckhorn plantain, cutleaf plantain -- Plantago coronopus
    • Minutina (Erba Stella) - at Johnny's Seeds
    • Plantaginaceae / Plantain Family, by Laurama T. Dempster. On the site of the Jepson Herbaria, University of California at Berkeley. Search or scroll down to get to P. coronopus. ©Copyright 1993 by the Regents of the University of California.
  • Maché, corn salad, lamb's lettuce, nusslisalat -- Valerianella olitoria or V. locusta

About one more plant I didn't have room for (either in the article or in the garden!):

The jute plant (Corchorus olitorius), which yields the world's second most important vegetable fiber (after cotton), is also extremely popular for eating in Africa and the Middle East. Molokeyhia, the Egyptian name, means "food of kings." However, it grows ten feet tall.