In the vegetable garden I try not to be seduced by plants that look pretty but don’t pull their weight in the kitchen. Not only do the crops I grow have to taste good, they also have to thrive without extreme measures. Callaloo, also known as vegetable amaranth, sounded like a winner because of its red-patterned, coleus-like leaves. So did golden purslane. But neither lived up to their press, at least not for me.
So it took me years to get around to magenta spreen, a close relative of lamb’s quarters, a common (very common at my place) weed. Ultimately, it was its mysterious name that roped me in. Online dictionaries were no help (“Do you mean sprain?” “Do you mean spleen?”). What the heck was a spreen? I finally traced it, through an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, to seed-breeder guru Alan Kapuler, who coined the word in preference to the more militaristic “shoot.” And this plant, as advertised, produces young magenta-colored shoots. They are startlingly beautiful. The very intense color is at the base of the smallest leaves, and it’s powdery. It rubs off on your fingers.
(Barbara Damrosch/BARBARA DAMROSCH) - Magenta spreen. Ugly name for a lovely and edible plant.
Taste-wise, magenta spreen is very similar to its cousins pigweed and lamb’s quarters but less flavorful. It has a generic grassy-leaf taste and would make a good substitute for spinach, another cousin, just as lamb’s quarters does. Why bother? Because spinach takes good fertility and timing to be a good crop, whereas lamb’s quarters and magenta spreen make a mighty stand as soon as you turn your back.
They would be there for me, packed with the solid range of minerals and vitamins that wild plants so often have, should all my other crops fail. But is my new find a Trojan horse? A pig with lipstick? Its botanical name, Chenopodium giganteum, foretells its size, which, I’m told, can reach nine feet. It’s already as tall as I am. And it will soon carpet the ground if allowed to self-sow — for the rest of my life.
It really is beautiful, though. As a garnish to toss into a salad it’s not only stunning, but it also looks like it belongs there, unlike some edible flower garnishes I could name. I’d grow a bit of it just for these decorations, and for its appearance in the garden. Also, the magenta parts are iridescent, because the tiny powdery granules catch the light when the sun hits them. I read that they have long been used as a natural cosmetic that will tint the lips and cheeks pink. I tried rubbing on some of the shoots — excuse me, spreens — in front of the mirror, and pink I became. I can’t wait to share them with my twin step-granddaughters.
So magenta spreen has conquered the territory, for now. I just won’t turn my back.
Damrosch is a freelance writer and author of “The Garden Primer.”