Spinach's Brilliant Cousin

Oracle, a variety of orach from Johnny's Selected Seeds.
Oracle, a variety of orach from Johnny's Selected Seeds. (By Pete Nutile -- Johnny's Selected Seeds)
By Barbara Damrosch
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, April 6, 2006

A few years ago I would not have given you two cents for a packet of orach seeds. Never having grown it, I thought of orach (also called mountain spinach) as one of those old, marginally domesticated plants that people lived on before real spinach came into being.

After it was pointed out to me that I was eating a red-leaved orach (OR-ack or OR-ock) in baby-leaf salad mixes, my interest was piqued. I began to see red orach plants used to great effect in "edible landscape" plantings, mingled with flowers, vegetables and herbs. Finally, I sowed some orach in my herb garden. It mingled poorly, stunted by the dryish soil that Mediterranean herbs prefer and by their competitive roots. My plants had nice, deep-red leaves, but were spindly and quick to bolt.

The story might have ended there had I not tried orach again in a more favorable setting. Sown in businesslike rows in the fertile, loose, deep soil of my vegetable plot, it flourished, forming clusters of large, arrow-shaped leaves. I tried several kinds. Though some leaves were crinkled like spinach (savoyed, in gardening parlance), all were thinner, with the soft, pliable feel of cloth. Best of all were the colors -- not only maroon and green, but also a neon magenta and an electric chartreuse. The most glamorous rows were a mix called Aurora in which all these colors were combined.

Orach's flavor is, as gardener and author William Woys Weaver puts it, "agreeable." It falls a bit short of "delicious." But last summer, when I sliced the foliage into ribbons and added it to salads, the effect was dazzling. I lined platters with whole leaves, so much easier to spread flat than other greens, and made a colorful frame for pallid foods such as potato salad. (Orach can be cooked, but most varieties lose their bright colors.)

Although they took the warm weather better than spinach does, they did bolt, sending up tall stalks with increasingly smaller leaves. Yet these, too, were tender and agreeable. I found myself picking them and stockpiling them in the kitchen, in a pitcher of water. Unlike other cut greens, such as chard, they did not wilt when displayed in this way and were as beautiful as any floral bouquet. What a discovery! I've since heard they're grown as "cuts" for the flower trade. I will certainly grow them again. Though tolerant of drought, heat, cold, and poor, saline soil (an old name is "saltbush"), I've found that giving them better treatment pays off. This year I'll sow them in succession every few weeks, eating the thinnings at baby size and leaving the rest spaced 8 to 10 inches apart to grow larger leaves and eventually stems for cutting.

Colorful orach is not, as you might think, a modern novelty thought up by an enterprising seedsman. It's an ancient crop, botanically Atriplex hortensis . Its common name derived from the French arroche , which comes from the Latin for "golden." Nineteenth-century authors such as Fearing Burr and Vilmorin-Andrieux described numerous varieties of this once-popular food, in a wide range of colors, as well as different heights and leaf textures.

The seedsman who bred Aurora and released it in 2002, Frank Morton of Gathering Together Farm in Philomath, Ore., has a gift for reviving old horticultural gems. Amused by his catalogue's description of this mix as a "mountain spinach for merry pranksters" that was "delivered to our breeding nursery by a freak of nature," I phoned and asked him to tell me the story.

He had been working with some old red and gold varieties of orach preserved by the Abundant Life Seed Foundation when he noticed a brilliant magenta plant among them. Its seeds then produced a rainbow strain with a wealth of genetic diversity. He considers Aurora a "breeding population" to be further refined, so that all its hues are equally represented in the mix (much the way the Bright Lights chard mix was balanced by Rob Johnston of Johnny's Selected Seeds). Meanwhile, the present mix is available from Morton's own catalogue ( http://www.wildgardenseed.com/ ), Fedco Seeds and John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds.

Morton told me other fascinating things about orach. On a single plant, some seeds might have hard black hulls that make them slow to germinate, as well as others that germinate promptly. In addition, goldfinches are attracted to the black seeds. Thus the plant has three survival strategies -- early germination, late germination and seed dispersal by birds. Its flowers attract bees and syrphid flies. The latter, which look like tiny bees, arrive just in time to prey on aphids that attack fall garden crops.

I learned a good lesson. Never write off a food crop without giving it a good try. Even an unpromising one might prove to be golden.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company