Orach: An Ancient Vegetable That’s New Again

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Red orach with it’s startling red foliage. Photo: Die Grashüpferinnen

Do you know orach or orache (Atriplex hortensis), also known as mountain spinach? It’s a vegetable that was once very popular and, in fact, was one of the first vegetables cultivated by humans, known well before the time of the ancient Greeks.

During the Middle Ages, orach was one of the mostly commonly grown vegetables in Eurasia and by the 17th and 18th centuries it had “conquered” the Americas and Australia as well. But then spinach, previously an obscure, rarely grown spring vegetable with a similar taste, suddenly became very popular and orach went into decline. Why? Nobody knows. It’s especially odd considering that orach is easier to grow than spinach, can be harvested over a much longer season … and is far prettier as well!

Both plants belonged to the Chenopodiaceae, a family now placed in the Amarantaceae family, and both share the same sweet-sour taste, as does Swiss chard, another relative.

Interestingly, orach has naturalized in many areas where it was formerly grown, a sure sign there was once a vegetable garden there. You never see spinach naturalizing!

A Vegetable to Put on Display

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You could use red orach as a summer hedge. Photo: Wearefound Home Design

The most commonly grown orach is red-leaved variety, called red orach (A. hortensis rubra). It comes with leaves in a range of reds, pinks and purples, depending on the variety. The flowers and seed capsules are also red or purple. With its unique coloring, it can easily be used as an ornamental plant.

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The ‘Aurora’ strain contains a mix of red, green and white oraches. Photo: Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds

There are also green orachs (they have green leaves and flowers) and so-called white orachs (with chartreuse-yellow leaves and flowers), but they are less popular than red varieties.

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Red orach flowers and seed capsules.

Depending on how you grow it, the stem can reach about 2 feet/60 cm tall (that’s if you pinch the plant regularly) or 6 feet/180 cm or more. The leaves wary widely in shape, heart- or arrowhead-shaped at the base and narrower to almost linear at the top. The flowers are small and form dense clumps at the top of the plant, somewhat like blood amaranth (Amaranthus cruentus) which is, incidentally, another close relative.

Orachs are monoecious (there are separate male and female flowers on the same plant) and pollinated by the wind. So, no, they don’t attract bees and butterflies.

What Part Do You Eat?

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Red orach leaves brighten up a summer salad. Photo: bodecology.cm

The leaves and young stems are the main edible parts. Younger leaves can be eaten raw, older ones — a bit tougher — are best cooked. You can substitute orach in any recipe calling for spinach or Swiss chard: soups, salads, quiches, lasagnas, etc. The red color of the foliage disappears during cooking, leaving you with a green vegetable … but stains the water in which you cook it red. In Italy, orach often cooked with pasta and rice (in a risotto, for example), giving them an attractive pink coloration.

The seeds too are edible and can be ground into flour or added to soups, stews, breads, cereals, etc.

The plant is very rich in vitamins C and K and minerals of all sorts, notably potassium, and is being called a “super food” (quite the buzzword these days). Canadian Living magazine calls orach “the new kale,” for example. Also, it has a long history of use as a medicinal plant.

So Easy to Grow

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Red orach. Photo: deedavee easy flower, Flickr

Orach is what is known as a “hardy annual,” which means an annual that tolerates cold temperatures and will support a few degrees of frost. Thus, unlike tender annuals that you have to start indoors since they need warm temperatures to germinate and are slow to mature, orach is almost never started indoors (although you can do so if you wish). Instead, traditionally it’s sown outdoors very early in the spring “as soon as the soil can be worked” or even the late fall for the following summer’s harvest. Since it’s a fast grower, you can also sow it repeatedly throughout the summer as a succession crop to replace other vegetables you have harvested.

Sow it about ¼ to ½ inches/1 to 1.5 cm deep, thinning to about 8 to 10 inches/20 to 25 cm apart. (And do note that you can harvest and eat the seedlings you thin out.)

You may want to sow both spinach and orach at the same time: spinach for an extra-early crop and orach to take over as the spinach goes to seed and becomes unusable. If well maintained, orach can be harvested from June until the first heavy frost.

Sow orach in full sun or partial shade in well-drained moderately rich soil. It tolerates saline and alkaline soils and will even grow where it receives salt spray, such as near the ocean. It’s also highly drought resistant… but drought makes the leaves coarser and more bitter. As with most vegetables, therefore, it’s best to keep the soil at least slightly moist at all times. Mulching, for example, is a good idea.

Orach is an excellent choice for the very trendy idea of food-scaping and it grows well in pots too, making it a good choice for a terrace or balcony garden.

A Pinch in Time

Orach will, like so many leaf vegetables, go to seed and become less edible if you don’t pinch it (cut off its uppermost stalk) occasionally. It responds wonderfully to pinching, producing a profusion of new stems covered in succulent young leaves. So do pinch it or cut it back as soon as you see flowers appear or even before.

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Orach self sows… but the colourful plants are easy to spot and pull out if they get out of line.

However, orach is normally a self-sustaining vegetable. Even though it’s an annual, it will come back year after year through self-sowing. And for that, you have to let at least one plant go to seed each year. Its seeds will then drop to the ground, thus allowing new plants to sprout the following summer, reducing your effort considerably.

However, the downside to self-sowing is that it will not always sprout exactly where you wanted it to grow. Orach can even be a bit weedy… although nothing like that other vicious self-sower of the vegetable garden, the blue-flowered herb borage (Borago officialis). I find it quite modest in its self-sowing habits. In fact, since I mulch my vegetable bed, I have to leave a few spots bare of mulch for it to sprout at all! Also, where green-leaved weeds can often hide sight unseen for a while, the red leaves of orach are a dead giveaway. If it isn’t where you planned it, either move the plant… or harvest and eat it!

Where to Find Orach

Few garden centers carry orach, either as plants or seeds, but there are many mail-order seed sources, especially companies specializing in organic or heirloom seeds, that do. Here are just a few:

  1. Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds
  2. Chiltern Seeds
  3. Johnny’s Selected Seeds
  4. West Coast Seeds
  5. William Dam Seeds

Try this beautiful, delicious and easy-to-grow vegetable this summer!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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