The Ancient Gardener's Instructor: Dispatches from Wesley Greene
January 9, 2013In the past several weeks we have examined the hardy greens in the cabbage family such as collards and kales. Even more cold tolerant than these are the several forms of spinach. Spinach was a relative latecomer to the English garden, William Turner recorded in 1551 that spinach was, “An herb lately found, and not long in use.” Once adopted, however, it became one of the most popular of all greens at the English table.
The modern spinach was selected from the wild Spinacia tetranda which is still gathered in the Turkish countryside as a native green. It was known in Persia by the third century CE but was not known by the ancient Greeks or Romans. It was imported to Moorish Spain in the eleventh century, by passing the rest of Europe, and it was from there that it was finally introduced to European gardeners after the expulsion of the Moors in the 15th century.The first spinach in Europe was the prickly seeded form. The smooth seeded spinach, which is universally grown today, appeared in England early in the 17th century. John Parkinson recorded in 1629 that there were three sorts of spinach, two prickly and, “The third that beareth a smooth seede, which is more daintie, and noursed up but in few Gardens.” Prickly seeded spinach has a distinctly triangular leaf and is of a generally milder essence.
Spinach should be sown in the fall in all but the most northern parts of North America and will provide both a fall and spring harvest. In fact, it is so well adapted to cold weather that it will not even germinate in a warm soil and is the last of the winter greens sown in our garden, typically near the first of October. Spinach is at its finest after it has gone through several hard frosts which tenderizes and sweetens the leaves. In most parts of the country spring sown spinach gives but a small harvest before the warm weather causes it to run to flower.
For a complete discussion of the salad greens you are encouraged to inspect: Vegetable Gardening the Colonial Williamsburg Way, 18th Century Methods for Today’s Organic Gardeners (Rodale Press).