Wednesday, February 26, 2014


My fondness for lamb’s quarters, Chenopodium album, is no secret. I frequently mention this edible “weed” in seminars, columns, blog posts and guidebooks. But there is another member of this same family that long ago piqued my interest and yet, I have yet to locate even a single specimen. It appears that that has changed.

The order Chenopodeae has several members, one of which is the goosefoot group. The leaves of these plants generally resemble a goose’s foot, thus Chen, or chenos, from the Greek word for goose, and pous, which means “foot.”

Some, but not all members of the goosefoot group occur naturally on both sides of the Atlantic. Lamb’s quarters, probably our most common example, is an alien plant, that is, it came here from Europe. Likewise, the plant at the center of this discussion, Good-King-Henry (GKH), is another European introduction.

My knowledge of GKH is limited to a page in a Reader’s Digest publication, Magic and Medicine of Plants. The text explains that the name came not, as we might think, from England’s King Henry VIII, but from a Germanic goblin that was known to help with housework, as long as the housekeeper kept it supplied with a daily saucer of cream.

A charming story, perhaps, but that wasn't what garnered my interest. Instead, the plant’s culinary qualities drew my attention. The leaves were known as a spinach substitute (lamb’s quarters, too, are not only a fine substitute for spinach, it has largely replaced that garden vegetable in my diet) and the shoots an ersatz “asparagus.” Reader’s Digest goes on to say that the plant is rich in iron and vitamin C and serves to prevent anemia. That much we might well infer from any leafy, dark green plant.

The leaves are said to reach 6 inches in length, far larger than lamb’s quarters. The plant grows to 12 inches, according to Reader’s Digest.

But since reading about Good-King-Henry back in 1988, I had not seen another reference to it until several years ago, when I was given a signed copy of Flowering Plants of Great Britain, 1870. Here, in an exhaustive listing of the various chenopodiums, was a detailed reference to GKH. The text explained that GKH was extensively cultivated in gardens and cottage gardens. The author went on to say that the plant has ceased to be regarded as a common vegetable, although it is still occasionally boiled by cottagers.

Good-King-Henry has a perennial root, as opposed to lamb’s quarters, which is an annual. With all these pleasant-sounding attributes, it’s easy to see why I have searched, in vain, for GKH over the years since first learning about it. And now, it appears, my search is over.

The end of my quest came in the form of one of those pesky garden packages of postcard-type order blanks. While thumbing through these cards before discarding them, I came upon one that caught my eye. It was from Le Jardin du Gourmet and it read “the 40-cent seed packet.”

The idea here is to give people a chance to try new herbs, flowers and vegetables without having to pay a fortune. I looked at the abbreviated list of herb seeds on the back of the card and that prompted me to visit their website. There, I saw an offer for Good-King-Henry.

I could barely believe my eyes, much less my good fortune. I immediately sent in an order for a packet of GKH seed, as well as a bunch of other seeds that I had planned on buying anyway, come spring. Shipping came to $3.50 my order total was something like $7.50.

So now I sit and wait for the mail carrier to deliver my Good-King-Henry seeds.

I plan on starting the seeds indoors and setting the young plants out in a select section of one of raised bed gardens. If these taste as good as I suspect they do, GKH will become a regular member of my vegetable garden community. If not, I've only lost 40 cents. But either way, I will have resolved my wondering and hunting for this great-sounding plant.

By the way, the website for this interesting little seed company from St. Johnsbury, Vermont, is:

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Ground Ivy - The First Wild Green

What a long, tedious winter this has been. It seems as though it will never end, although I know it must. But any hopes for a respite any time soon seem in vain. It snows every other day now and sometimes, every day. And each night, temperatures dip down to zero and stay there until mid-morning, when the sun, if it becomes visible at all, drives the mercury up into the teens.

The ice storm that hit Maine in December caused me the loss of some of my frozen foods, including frozen fiddleheads. I have plenty of frozen dandelions left, though, as well as some of the home-canned variety. But I’m tired of canned and frozen food. I want something fresh. Sure my homemade produce keeps me well-nourished, but it still seems that some vitamins and minerals from a fresh source would help my body and lift my spirits.

To that end, I’m looking for a perennial plant that will become available just as soon as the snow begins to melt just a little bit and withdraws from around the base of my greenhouse. There, hardy vines of ground ivy await. These should be just as nice and green as the day they became snow-covered early last winter.

Ground ivy, or gill-over-the-ground, was once known as “alehoof.” Brewers used it to tone up and preserve beer, well before hops came into general use. But it’s not for beer that I want ground ivy. It’s for its ultra-high vitamin C content.

Ground ivy was once said to cure “painter’s colic,” which we now know was nothing more than lead poisoning from using lead-based paints. Vitamin C combats bad effects of lead. But vitamin C also does far more than that and recent studies show it to be an alternative treatment for certain cancers and in some cases can either complement or augment chemotherapy. That’s saying a lot for any wild herb.

Lots of vitamins C and A seem like a good way for anyone to ward off late-winter woes. That’s why old-timers referred to spring greens in general as “spring tonic.” Their vitamin-starved systems responded well to heaping doses of vitamins and minerals served up by bowls of fresh-picked wild greens.

So my longing for a strong cup of ground ivy tea makes sense in view of me wanting more vitamins. Besides that, ground ivy is a very bitter herb, and as such serves as an appetite stimulant. And my appetite has been lacking lately, probably the victim of winter ennui and lack of inertia because of forced confinement indoors while the snow falls and temperatures range in the single numbers.

Tonight, while listening to the winter wind howl as yet another storm pelts Midcoast Maine, I’ll drop off to sleep with dreams of ground ivy dancing in my head. And soon, hopefully, my longing for that first wild plant of the year will be assuaged in the form of a steaming-hot cup of ground ivy tea. That can’t happen too soon, either. As I said earlier, it’s been a long, cold winter. 

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Expiration Dates

I mentioned something in a recent newspaper column that bears repeating here. It’s a way of looking beyond the present and anticipating the future. In this case, it’s a way to put the cold and snow of winter in a box and isolate it while we welcome the coming spring.

I refer to expiration dates printed on perishable items such as eggs. I bought a carton of eggs two days ago and noticed that the expiration date was March 13. That’s only seven days away from the first day of spring.

Likewise, I was in the eye doctor’s office last week and the receptionist made out a card for my next appointment. It was in early May. The first thing that came to mind had nothing to do with eye health, either. Instead, I thought, “Spring. That’s spring. I’ll be fiddleheading and trolling for salmon.”

So near and yet so far, spring is, especially when nighttime temperatures sit a zero and don’t budge until mid-morning the next day.

Of course I don’t pay much attention to expiration dates on egg cartons in fall, because it only reminds me of impending winter and the end of growing things, at least for a while. But now, in late winter, every little bit of cheer I can latch on to helps to buoy my spirits.

Everything passes, including winter. Soon sap will drip from maple limbs broken during December’s ice storm. Flocks of red-winged blackbirds will descend upon fields and lawns and wild plants will push up through the newly-thawed soil. It won’t be long now. And if you don’t believe me, just check out the date on a carton of eggs. 

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Groundhog Day 2014

Wild Plants And Wooly Bears

Groundhog Day 2014

Far from being cuddly and inoffensive, groundhogs, or woodchucks, have mean dispositions. A groundhog has no compunction about attacking anything, including other groundhogs and humans who foolishly venture too close. This accounts for why Punxatawny Phil’s handlers wear heavy leather gloves when pulling the sleepy rodent from his den and showing him around.

Phil is celebrity all around the country, not just his home state of Pennsylvania. And Phil saw his shadow this morning, Groundhog Day, 2014. This means that we can expect six more weeks of winter rather than an early spring. But wait, what’s that “we” they speak of? Punxatawny Phil lives far away from Maine. And if any Maine woodchuck were to come out of its burrow today, it definitely would not see its shadow.

So unless you live in a region that saw sunshine today, don’t take an out-of-state woodchuck’s prediction as gospel. Instead, consult your local woodchuck. It just might have a rosier forecast.

The following essay is from a chapter in my book, Hidden World Revealed and I offer it here as an item of seasonal interest. Its title is: Life Goes On. Readers can order Hidden World from the, from the publisher at or from any local bookstore.

It’s hard to think about nature during times of sub-zero temperatures and double-digit wind chills. But nature equips plants and animals to deal with such extremes, and life not only goes on, it remains robust and vigorous.

Consider muskrats. These critters are out of sight, out of mind. Ponds and slow-moving streams are frozen, and we won’t lay eyes on a muskrat until well after the thaw. But the muskrats are not sleeping and they are plenty active. Like some people, muskrats gather food in for the winter. Also, muskrats, normally solitary animals, often spend the winter in large groups, sharing body heat inside their domed lodges, and happily munching on the communal bounty.

Trees become brittle in winter, and the sap ceases to flow. But the roots continue to grow under the snow. Only if the ground freezes below the roots, will the entire organism go dormant. So look at that stark winter landscape, with the frozen branchlets of birch and maple whipping around in the winter wind. But don’t think that life has fled. Chances are, those roots are extending their range, reaching out in search of more ground from which to extract nutrients and moisture.

Under a coating of ice and snow, dragonfly nymphs crawl about, hunting for smaller insects and tiny minnows, and fish of all kinds slowly cruise the bottom, searching for dragonfly nymphs. The chain of life continues, and it is rich and vibrant still.

So take hope. Although cold winds and snow rage and snarl, life goes on and it doesn't miss a beat.