Garden Journal

Orach has a salty, nutty flavor

August 13, 2014

Sometimes the garden grows like a lightning bolt, shooting up day by day. Hot, dry weather can cause another kind of bolting in the garden. From the stress of summer, many garden greens experience explosive growth and bolt, or send up flower shoots and go to seed. Because most garden plants try to eventually go to seed, bolting is a natural process. But if you are growing vegetables for their leaves, such as lettuce, spinach, Swiss chard and cabbage, bolting is a serious problem.

When a vegetable bolts, the plant puts its energy into producing flowers and seeds, and the leaves begin to die. The dying leaves become bitter, woody and tasteless.

Some green vegetables do quite well in heat and drought. A little-known green. Orach (Atriplex hortensis) is a green that grows purple, red, salmon and green. It is also called Garden Orache, Red Orach, French Spinach or Mountain Spinach. Orach is quite hardy, and can grow up to six feet tall, depending upon the variety and your soil. It has a salty, nutty flavor that lends itself to salads, stir fries and mixed cooked greens.

The tasty leaves are used to lend a bright green or red color to pasta in Italy. There are varieties with red, green and yellow leaves, each color with a slightly different flavor. Red varieties especially make dramatic ornamental plantings. The yellow-leafed varieties are especially flavorful.

You can blanch and freeze the leaves, or can them as you might spinach. Try sautéing in butter or bake into a quiche.

Even though the taste is similar to spinach, orach is much milder, and it has less oxalic acid than spinach. It is very high in calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, iron, vitamin C, and carotene. Folklore says it is good for digestion and purifies the blood.

To plant orach, prepare a smooth seed bed. Sow the tiny seeds directly in the garden anytime after your last frost. Orach does best in well-drained, fertile soil with lots of organic matter such as compost dug in. It tolerates alkaline soil and even salty soil near the ocean. Orach prefers a garden soil pH between 5.6 and pH 7.8. While it does OK during droughts, it will taste better when kept watered.

Sow the seeds one-quarter to one-half inch deep, two to three inches apart, in rows 12 to 18 inches apart.

For summer plantings, be sure to keep the seedbed moist but not soggy.

You can pick individual leaves or simply cut the entire young plants. Let some plants grow to full size, and simply cut the leaves from the bottom up.

Seeds for orach are available from many seed companies including High Mowing Organic Seeds (76 Quarry Road, Wolcott, VT 05680; 802-472-6174, and Southern Exposure Seeds (540-894-9480;  P.O. Box 460, Mineral, VA 23117.)

You can easily save your own seeds for next year, though many gardeners find this plant will readily self-sow and provide hundreds of “volunteer” plants next year.

So if your summer garden greens need a boost, or you just want to grow something different, try orach.

It could just be the bolt from the blue that your garden needs.

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