Sunday, November 14, 2010

Spinach, by any other name

He came home one day with a raggedy scrap of green and purple, swaddled in damp hardware receipts. "For you" he said as he kissed me hello, "Okinawan Spinach". This man knows that diamonds are not the way to my heart. I laughed in delight, kissed him back, and ran off to find a home for my new treasure.

If you know much about growing spinach you might be wondering about my excitement. Spinach prefers cool, damp weather. It can grow in Hawaii but in most areas the season is short and the plant is fickle, demanding special consideration from the gardener. Gardeners in Hawaii are encouraged  to select from a variety of warm weather spinach substitutes instead, things like Malabar spinach, Lagos spinach, New Zealand spinach, water spinach and Sisso spinach. After being fooled by a few of these imposters i learned that 'spinach' only means that the plant will be leafy and green.  Probably edible but not necessarily palatable. Do not be discouraged by this. Acceptable substitutes  for Spinacia oleracea are available, according to your desired use, they are just not called spinach.

But wait, i am getting sidetracked.  Let me get back to telling you about this plant, Gynura crepioides, that belongs in every island garden. Like the spinaches mentioned earlier, Okinawan spinach should not be thought of as a spinach substitute. It isn't. But unlike the others it is plenty palatable. In our house we strip the leaves off of the stem and add them to green salads where they flash sparkles of jeweled brilliance. Each thick, smooth leaf has a slightly succulent quality, like spinach, but with a faint piney taste and an affinity tropical fruits.  We are exploring other ways to incorporate this plant into our diet because of its rumoured cholesterol lowering properties. 

So this Okinawan spinach tastes good, looks good and is good for you. You're checking your seed catalogs already, aren't you? But wait, there's more. This unfussy plant is ridiculously easy to grow. It forms a low mat that would be easy to incorporate into an edible landscape and seems to have few pest issues. It will tolerate a moderate amount of drought and even full sun in my garden although it does appreciate regular moisture and a little shade. It strikes readily from tip cuttings in moist soil or in a glass of water on a kitchen countertop.     The plant produces a typical asteraceae type flower during the shorter days of winter but the seeds do not grow true to type, producing all green leaves that lack the characteristic richly pigmented underleaf. 

I took a few tip cuttings to a seed swap last year and was pleasantly surprised by the number of people who shared that they had a patch growing in their own or their Auntie's garden. The internet tells me that Okinawan spinach can be found at selected nurseries, swap meets and plant sales on other islands but i have never seen it for sale on Maui. I hope i have convinced you that it is worth seeking out. 

Dawn Dewa, Gynura nepalensis, aka 'The Low Cholesterol Plant' is a related plant i would like to find . If you can help me out with that please leave a comment


Mr. H. said...

It sounds like an amazing plant, I love the colors.I have to agree with you on Malabar and New Zealand spinach, I have grown both and was not that impressed.

You might be able to purchase Dawn Dewa at as a bare root cutting.

Rowena... said...

At a restaurant that I once worked at, the chef had some growing in the kitchen garden. These are very tasty indeed!

Julie said...

Thanks for the link Mr. H. You probably grow great spinach up there in Idaho and probably at least 10 different kinds, all delicious ; )

Now see, that's just what i mean Rowena. Lots of folks know about this plant but i've never seen it offered at even a farmer's market (maybe i'm going to the wrong ones!). Did you know that you can find pohole on the shelves at Whole Foods now? But no Okinawan Spinach. Needs better marketing i bet.

Rowena... said...

Not only better marketing, but also accurate and reliable descriptions! I was just chatting with my dad who said that he was eating okinawan spinach that a friend had given him (he was told that it was good for cholesterol). I asked if the undersides were purple and he said that it wasn't! My guess is that it was malabar, who knows? It disturbs me on the misinformation part, because others may also have the same impression regarding the health benefits but are not eating the actual spinach itself.

Adrian Holbeck said...

Hi folks, our search shows the binomial for Okinawan spinach to be Gynura bicolor. Seems to be lots of confusion with Crassocephalum crepidioides (Thickhead, etc.) often eaten as cooked veg, but WIKI cautions safety due to plant toxins.