Good King Henry dates back to Neolithic times

January 11, 2017

Winter is a time of peace in the garden, and a time of spills and falls everywhere else. Surfers who painfully crash from their boards are said to “wipe out. “ 

Needing a back or B-side to their single “Surfer Joe,” the Surfaris wrote a tune literally on the spot at the recording studio. They used hokey sounds to suggest falling off a surfboard followed by a manic voice in an eerie falsetto, “ha ha ha ha ha, wipe out.”

The infamous drum solo is actually just a speeded-up rendition of the Charter Oak High School marching band’s drum cadence from band member Ron Wilson’s alma mater. The song “Surfer Joe” took a backseat to its B-side “Wipe Out.” It went on to sell over 700,000 copies. 

Sometimes something that is a wipe-out can bring good things. Vegetables can be wiped out by flood, drought or weeds, but many are wiped out simply because newer, better things came along. 

In Medieval Europe, a wholesome herb rich in bone-building calcium, iron and Vitamin C was a major part of everyday eating, especially in stews with Swiss Chard and leeks.

This once-popular food is the now humble Good King Henry (Compendium bonus-henricus).

Also known as Mercury, this is a hardy perennial growing in USDA zones 3-9. Good King Henry dates back to Neolithic times.

Because of the shape of its leaves, it, along with several other herbs, is also called goosefoot. It was brought to Europe over 5,000 years ago, and has naturalized, or spread into the wild in Europe, and even parts of North America. 

Sow Good King Henry anytime in spring, summer or fall. The seeds germinate easily. It grows best in rich soil in light shade, but can survive in full sun. Soon you will be rewarded by clumps of deep green leaves on plants about two feet tall.

This potherb doesn’t like transplanting, so it is best to sow seeds exactly where you want your Good King Henry to grow. For best results let the plants grow a year before harvesting. Plants can be harvested. Often the plants will self-seed. 

Cut the shoots when they are about five or six inches high, peel off the rough outer skin, and cook like asparagus. You can eat the tender, young leaves raw or cook them in olive oil and garlic. Even the flower stalks are delicious steamed and topped with butter. 

In traditional medicine, Good King Henry is used to treat indigestion and constipation. 

Used as a potherb, it is one of the first greens of spring, and one of the last of fall. An ancient plant used in festive meals, in meat dishes and as a side dish, it was very popular in Europe before it was supplanted by spinach. 

So if you feel wiped out by winter, it is good to know that Good King Henry is one of the first greens to sprout in the spring. 

And why the odd name of Good King Henry? There really was a King Henry, officially “Henry, by the the Grace of God, King of England, France and Lord of Ireland.” Today he is better known as King Henry VII. He was the first of the line of Tudors, but today is best remembered for establishing the weights and measures standard of the Pound Avoirdupois. By around 1640 Henry, by the Grace of God, King of England, France and Lord of Ireland, was affectionately known as Good King Henry. 

And the long name was a wipe-out.

  • Paul Barbano writes about gardening from his home in Rehoboth Beach. Contact him by writing to P. O. Box 213, Lewes, DE 19958.

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