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When I think of spinach I think of my mother’s wilted spinach salad – a Spring treat. She would buy fresh spinach and toss with scallions and hard boiled eggs. Then she would fry some bacon and crumble the bacon into the salad. Finally, she would make a hot dressing on the stovetop with bacon fat, cider vinegar and brown sugar. She would pour this hot over the salad and serve the “wilted” salad. Delicious!
Learn more about the nutritious vegetable beloved of royalty below:
Latin Name: Spinacia oleracea
Family: Amaranthaceae (the family of the grain Amaranth, formerly classified as Chenopodiaceae)
Description: Spinach is an edible flowering plant in the family of Amaranthaceae. It is an annual plant which can grow to a height of up to 30 cm. Spinach may survive over winter in temperate regions. The leaves are oval or triangle-shaped and can vary in size from about 2–30 cm long and 1–15 cm broad. There are both smooth-leaved and bumpy- leaved varieties. The flowers are inconspicuous, yellow-green and form small, hard, black seeds.
Origin: Spinach is native to central and southwestern Asia, though it is grown now in many parts of the world. Spinach is thought to have originated in ancient Persia (modern Iran and neighboring countries). Arab traders carried spinach into India, and then the plant was introduced into ancient China, where it was known as the “Persian vegetable”.
The Saracens introduced spinach to Sicily. Spinach became a popular vegetable in the Arab Mediterranean, and arrived in Spain by the latter part of the 12th century. The prickly-seeded form of spinach was known in Germany by no later than the 13th century, though the smooth-seeded form was not described till 1552. (The smooth-seeded form is used in modern commercial production.)
Spinach first appeared in England and France in the 14th century, probably via Spain, and it gained quick popularity because it appeared in early spring, when other vegetables were scarce and when Lenten dietary restrictions were in force. Spinach is mentioned in the first known English cookbook, The Forme of Cury (1390), where it is referred to as spinnedge and/or spynoches. Smooth-seeded spinach was described in 1552. In 1533, Catherine de’ Medici became queen of France; she so fancied spinach that she insisted it be served at every meal. To this day, dishes made with spinach are known as “Florentine”, reflecting Catherine’s birth in Florence.
Cultivation (how and where grown): The United States is the world’s second-largest producer of spinach. About three quarters of the spinach produced in the US is for the fresh market. The Environmental Working Group reported spinach is one of the dozen most heavily pesticide-contaminated produce products, which is a good reason to grow your own!
Spinach is a cool season plant. It needs full sun in cool weather and partial shade in warmer temperatures. Soil should be light, fertile and moisture-retentive, with a pH of 6.0 to 7.0. Dig in plenty of well-cured manure to ensure the right soil conditions and to provide the nitrogen necessary for good leaf production. Seed packets say to sow spinach seeds directly into the garden as soon as the ground can be worked, normally anywhere from four to eight weeks before the last expected frost. This is because spinach resents transplanting and seeds germinate well in temperatures as low as 50 degrees F so direct planting is optimal. (I have grown and transplanted spinach starts however.) Plant seeds 1/2 inch deep and 2 inches apart in wide rows. For a continuous harvest, sow every two weeks until daytime temperatures start to average 75 degrees F. Spinach bolts (flowers) and turns bitter in warm weather. Harvest leaves as soon as large enough. Harvest entire plant if a flower stalk appears.
Fun Fact: The cartoon character Popeye the Sailor Man is portrayed as having a strong affinity for spinach, becoming physically stronger after consuming it.
Nutrition: Spinach has a high nutritional value and is extremely rich in antioxidants, especially when fresh, steamed, or quickly boiled. It is a rich source of vitamin A (and especially high in lutein), vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin K, magnesium, manganese, folate, betaine, iron, vitamin B2, caldium, potassium, vitamin B6, folic acid, copper, protein, phosphorous, zinc, niacin, selenium and omega-3 fatty acids. Polyglutamyl folate (vitamin B9 or folic acid) is a vital constituent of cells, and spinach is a good source of folic acid. Boiling spinach can more than halve the level of folate left in the spinach, but microwaving does not affect folate content.
Spinach, along with other green leafy vegetables, is considered to be a rich source of iron and calcium. However, spinach also contains iron and calcium absorption-inhibiting substances, including high levels of oxalate, which can bind to the iron to form ferrous oxalate and render much of the iron in spinach unusable by the body. The calcium in spinach is the least bioavailable of calcium sources. The body can absorb about half of the calcium present in broccoli, yet only around 5% of the calcium in spinach.
Culinary Uses: Spinach comes in two leaf forms: Smooth-leaved varieties are sweet, tender and perfect for salads; savoy types have thicker, crinkly leaves that hold up better when cooked. Spinach is sold loose, bunched, in prepackaged bags, canned, or frozen. Fresh spinach loses much of its nutritional value with storage of more than a few days. While refrigeration slows this effect to about eight days, spinach will lose most of its folate and carotenoid content, so for longer storage it is frozen, cooked and frozen, or canned. Storage in the freezer can be for up to eight months.
Spinach is eaten fresh in salads or blended in smoothies. It can be cooked in pasta, dips, or soups.
Medicinal Uses: During World War I, wine fortified with spinach juice was given to French soldiers weakened by hemorrhage, (blood loss), to rebuild their blood due to the high iron content of the spinach. Spinach is full of anti-inflammatory and antioxidants compounds.
Favorite varieties (grown in school gardens): ‘Savoy’ and ‘Bloomingdale Long Standing’
Impact on Culture: Spinach, along with Brussels sprouts and other green vegetables, is often portrayed in children’s shows as being undesirable, though children love to eat it fresh out of the garden.
In history, spinach was eaten by European kings. Many dishes that contain spinach are called ‘florentine’ after Catherine de Medici, queen of France, who was from Florence and loved to eat spinach at every meal.
Appearance in Literature: Films are sometimes referred to by film critics in reviews as spinach cinema – movies that are not very exciting or interesting, but that one feels one must see because they are educational or otherwise uplifting.
by Nancy Denison
Did you know that lettuce was cultivated over 4,000 years ago, not only for its leaves but also for the oil from its seeds? It was grown all over the Mediterranean region and China and was served to Persian kings as early as the 6th century BC, however, the Romans didn’t discover lettuce until the 1st century AD, naming one variety after themselves; Romaine.
The Food Encyclopedia, relays a story about Caesar calling upon an astrologer when his physician was unable to take care of him. After lying in the lettuce patch, the astrologer decried Caesar was to eat only lettuce to be cured of his illness. Upon his recovery, Caesar erected a statue of the astrologer and an alter to show his gratitude. The Greeks and Romans ate lettuce to cure insomnia and in the Middle Ages, monks ate lettuce daily to help them preserve their chastity.
In Northern Michigan, as we patiently wait for the warm up of our garden soil, it is time to get our earliest cool weather plants/seeds in the ground. I’ve been planting several varieties of lettuce for about four years and love how easy they are to grow and wonderful to eat. I start with seedlings from a vendor at the farmer’s market- usually a variety of 6-8 plants. In general, there are five distinct varieties of lettuce;
- Crisphead– includes Great Lakes, Iceberg, Yatesdale, Imperial, Target, and Ithaca. These form tight round heads of crisp, juicy leaves. The outer leaves are dark with almost white inner leaves. Iceberg, so named because of the ice which covered the lettuce during transportation, is the most popular.
- Butterhead– has crisp, curly reddish-purple to green leaves with a buttery texture and flavor. Their heads are looser and smaller than crisphead. Best known varieties are Boston and Bibb, but there are many other varieties from which to choose.
- Leaf– loose, small heads which can resemble an open rose. They have soft, thin, floppy leaves with a delicate, buttery flavor. You can choose from many varieties but oak leaf, green leaf and red leaf are very popular.
- Cos/ Romaine– named after the Aegean Island where it was first grown. Legend has it that Adonis was hiding in a bed of cos lettuce when he was killed by a foraging wild boar which then caused Greeks and Romans to eat lettuce at funeral meals. This lettuce is tall with long, upright, narrow leaves and a sweet, crisp taste.
- Stem– not as well known in the U.S. as in Asia. Grows to about 12 inches with a thick stalk and a taste similar to celery or artichoke. The leaves resemble romaine lettuce but must be eaten when young. The stem must be peeled to remove the bitter skin, and then cut into smaller pieces for use in salads or stir-fries.
With our short growing season, start lettuce by seed indoors about mid- March so seedlings can go out, in most years, by mid- April. If sowing outdoors, soil temperature should be between 40-60F. Lettuce seeds need light to germinate, so lay seeds on top of the bed, cover lightly with soil and keep evenly moist. Roger Kaley of Sun-Ra Farms in Kingsley has success with his clayish soil. My plants do well in my, always needing amending, beds, and of course, lettuce is wonderful to grow hydroponically, as many local large growers know. Lettuce, also, does very well as a container plant for those without a suitable garden. What fun to walk out on your deck and pick the lettuce for your salad!
Lettuce grows fast and can be harvested in about four weeks. If you wish to use your lettuce as microgreens, cut leaves or the whole plant when leaves are about 2-3 inches long. With all but crisphead varieties, individual leaves can be cut from the outside of the head as needed, or harvest the whole head at one time. The growing season will be over when a central stem begins to develop which means bolting is near.
Don’t be sad, though, as lettuce is great for succession planting. Sow seeds every ten days or so throughout the growing season for lettuce early summer through fall. Of course, cold frames will help extend the season on both ends of summer.
Aphids love lettuce, as do cutworms, flea beetles and slugs…and in my yard, earwigs too. I like to put a thin strip of aluminum foil around the stem of my young plantings to help deter visitors.
There are so many varieties of lettuce and it is so easy to grow, why not try a few this year?
Edward C Smith, The Vegetables Gardener’s Bible. Storey Publishing, 2009
Jacques Rolland, Carol Sherman, The Food Encyclopedia. Robert Rose, 2006
Master Gardener Core Manual, 2000
Roger Kaley, Sun-Ra Farms