Red Greens

orach growing in our fieldOrach, or Atriplex hortensis, is a leafy vegetable that I grow that is related to spinach. You can sometimes find this plant in seed catalogues listed as “Goosefoot,” or “Mountain spinach.” There’s nothing avian or particularly mountainous about orach; in fact, “hortensis,” the second part of its proper scientific name, means “of the garden” in Latin, but the plant does bear a close resemblance to the even wilder, more antique and weedier form of spinach called Lamb’s Quarters. Orach comes in one of two decorator colors, purple or green, but it always has a nice, mellow flavor. Orach is never found in the supermarket despite the fact that it is easy to grow, nutritious, colorful, and tasty raw or cooked, and you only rarely find it in farmers markets.  Why?  One reason must be that the orach seed that is commercially available is ridiculously expensive, and it often germinates poorly. But I also attribute the absence of this ancient vegetable in the modern era to poor marketing on the part of the farmers.

It’s foolish for a professional grower to even plant a crop without a market in mind so it’s important for any would-be orach farmer to first consider the promotional challenges facing Atriplex hortensis. “Orach” is a pretty weird word for a “common name” and not many people even know how to pronounce it. (Pronounce “orach” like Iraq with an “O” and you’re doing fine.)  Then there’s the flavor to consider. Like spinach, orach is a member of the Chenopodiaceae family. In fact, almost any recipe for spinach can be comfortably and flavorfully be adapted to accommodate orach if people would only try it. Again I blame language for getting in the way of communication; consumers’ tongues would tell them the truth about orach if they would simply cease to shape names and concentrate on tasting the leaves instead. Here’s the problem.

The outline of an orach leaf can be construed to resemble a goose foot so orach is sometimes sold as “goosefoot.” The green form is called “Golden Goosefoot” and the purple variety is called “Purple Goosefoot.” These odd sounding English names have classical roots; “Cheno” comes from the Greek for goose, and “pod” means foot. Because orach was the first of this family to gain notice and acceptance it shares its scientific name with its more famous, contemporary green cousin. Unfortunately for orach, this “fowl” branding does little to add luster or sex appeal as a modern vegetable product.  Insecure consumers respond to a name like “purple goosefoot” by letting their minds wander to all the places a goose’s foot is likely to have stepped rather than wondering if a gratin of the vegetable pairs up best with red or white wine. Humans have such odd inhibitions! Did you know that a now fabulously successful fruit failed with the American public when it was first introduced into the marketplace as the “New Zealand Gooseberry”?  Geese again! But sales took flight when Frieda Caplan, of Frieda’s Finest Specialty Vegetables in the Los Angeles Produce Terminal, rebranded the sorry fuzzy brown fruit after the cute, but flightless Kiwi bird. Perhaps Frieda could reposition orach as “Purple Kiwifeet” and make a second fortune.

Or maybe I should garner a celebrity endorsement to spice up the glamour quotient for orach I grow the way the Nunes Company in Salinas called upon Brooke Shields when they wanted to promote their organic Iceberg lettuce products in 1989.  (“Hi, this is Whoopie Goldberg for Mariquita Farm. Have you eaten your purple geese feet today?”) Back in the 80’s even Brooke Shields couldn’t convince the average organic consumer to buy much Iceberg lettuce but sometimes celebrity can sell food. Just look at how everyone but Adolph Hitler has worn a white moustache to promote milk for the Dairy Council. Orach has been eaten since Eden, and I’ve read in different herbals that the plant was mentioned in the Bible, though I’ve never been able to locate the verse.  God’s word would be a fantastic endorsement.

**Popeye selling spinach in Salinas**In the meantime, spinach still has Popeye pitching its virtues, and the numbers don’t lie. In the first few years following Popeye’s conspicuous consumption of spinach, back in the cartoons of the 30’s, the popularity of spinach among America’s children exploded. Spinach’s Hollywood razzle dazzle wore off by the time I was a youngster in the 60’s but spinach remains a leader among greens. Don’t get me wrong. I love greens, but I think “purples” deserve our consideration too.

Spinach does best in a cool, coastal climate, but not all of us can farm near the beach, and orach thrives in hot, inland like zones, like Mariquita Farm’s Hollister location. It does well in the freezing cold too. I grew a crop of orach for seed this past summer, and a lot of orach seeds “volunteered” this fall after the rains. Temperatures sank into the high twenties this past week, but the orach grew beautifully through the frost, nonetheless. Spinach, by contrast, does terribly in the cold. And orach seems practically immune to the various mildews and molds that affect spinach so fungicide isn’t necessary, even for growers that use it. I have “issues” with fungicides, even if they’re organic, and we spray no chemicals, natural or otherwise on our crops, so orach’s vitality is very attractive to me. Winter, spring, summer, fall, orach grows easily. So why don’t more farmers grow it?

**Orach Seed that Andy saved**One reason that orach isn’t planted widely is the cost of the seed. I paid $126 for a pound of goosefoot seed three years ago and the germination rate was poor. Today I checked on the price and it had climbed to $185. Spinach seed is readily available and it’s a lot cheaper. Last year I decided to grow out a few orach plants and produce my own seed supply. Out of only 4 beds, 40 inches wide and two hundred feet long, I got four garbage cans of seed. Each orach seed was encased in a papery membrane. In masse, the orach seeds looked like breakfast cereal. I lacked the machinery to buff the membranes off and the seeds wouldn’t pass through my Planet Junior planters.  So I improvised another way of sowing raw, unprocessed orach seed. I removed the plates from an Earthway brand seeder that normally act to calibrate the amount of seed that is spilled into the soil and let the oatmeal-like seeds spill out like rain. The first planting from my own seed germinated with astonishing vigor. John Bauer, a farmer friend of mine who is also a seed dealer, informs me that the papery husk that seed companies go to such lengths to remove from orach seed actually helps the seed germinate. Apparently, when the papery husks rot in the soil they release enzymes which stimulate germination. Not only did my own seed stock germinate better than “store-bought” seed, it produced a crop that was a deeper purple than the mother stock I’d purchased. Hopefully, this year I can convince the public to cook my orach and the colorful crops I grow will be like so many geese, laying me golden eggs.

——–

text and photos copyright 2009 Andy Griffin  ||   all photos taken by Andy Griffin

** email us if you’d like to try planting some our orach seeds: we’ll send them to you for $5: that covers shipping and handling, the 1/3 cup seeds themselves are free.   julia at mariquita dot com

photo key:

1) orach growing in our field
2) Popeye helping Salinas sell spinach
3) orach seed that Andy saved with the husks still on

another orach photo, and another.
a couple of orach recipes

24 Responses to “Red Greens”


  1. 1 Jeffrey Fredrick

    This entry made me wonder, have you ever considered including some seed in your shares?

    Or maybe offering a separate Mariquita Seed share/sale?

    You could have your own customers acting as a local seed bank…

  2. 2 andy

    good point Jeffrey: I’ve asked Andy to respond to this directly, he’s driving in muddy fields right now… stay tuned! -julia

  3. 3 sarah giacomotto

    i would be interested in a small amount of orach seeds to try out in my home garden! i don’t think i’ve ever seen this at Common Ground Garden Supply in Palo Alto either, come to think of it. they might be interested in this kind of thing, too.

  4. 4 Carol F

    Yeah, I would love a few seeds as well. I doubt that even my awesome nursery carries these.

  5. 5 ALC

    Cannot wait to try these this year in our boxes. It will be a nice addition to the greens, we are very excited

  6. 6 andy

    hello all: I have seed now I can send out to those gardeners interested! let me know…: you can email me directly: julia at mariquita dot com.

    thanks!

    Julia

  7. 7 Judith

    You may be amused to read this but the way I found about purple orach was as an ornamental planting. I was watching a Penelope Hobhouse DVD about gardens in England, Ireland and America. In the famous garden of Helen Dillon, who gardens in Dublin, she had orach growing in her red border. It looked beautiful. Penelope called it orach or the botanical name Atriplex. I searched for it and have located a source for it in Canada where I live. I did not know it was a vegetable and a very healthy one at that. Needless to say I’m grow to try and grow it this year as an ornamental AND a veggie too!

  8. 8 Mary

    Yes, I would like to sow some of the seeds with my greens. Thanks! Mary

  9. 9 MARGARET

    I was given a few seeds for “tree spinach” several years ago and only learned last fall that the plant is orach. Mine is the green variety and once planted, I’ve never been out! I let too much go to seed (the birds like to harvest them) and would have seeds to share–if this year is like others. I’m in northeast Oregon.

  10. 10 Sue

    Thanks for the information about the beautiful orach plant. It is new to me, and I appreciate having a bit of “local” data. I got seeds from a friend at Christmas, spouted some, and have gorgeous plants in my coastside (San Mateo County) garden. Germination was easy - the seeds still had their paper jackets on them. I have both pale green and deep purple plants and look forward to growing them for years to come.

  11. 11 David Carver

    Would love some seeds plus info/directions; when, where to plant. When I receive seeds, I’ll gladly send you the $5.
    Best regards,
    David Carver
    3148 Corby Dr.
    San Jose, CA 95148

  12. 12 Dwight

    My grandmother had this plant in her flower garden in Saco, Montana. As far as I know she never knew it was edible. Rain is very rare in northeastern Montana and grandpa would not let her waste water on her flowers. It was very hardy, drought resistant, and self-seeded like crazy. It self-seeds here in Butte, Montana as well. It is beautiful in the flower borders, and since it self-seeds so well it is almost perfect. FREE FOOD, but yes it is hard to get people to try it.

  13. 13 Annie Chrietzberg

    Hi -

    I came across your blog by searching “orach.” I would love to buy some orach seeds from you, complete in their wrapper, if you have any available. I will soon be gardening a small holding in Longmont, Colorado.
    I had a taste of orach this summer, purchased from a local farmer’s market and look forward to my next taste of it!
    Please email me your address, if seeds are available and I will send you the dosh along with my address.

    best,

    Annie

  14. 14 Gaby

    I would love to buy some seeds and try them out in my garden. I’m from Romania and my mom used the ochra to make soup in the summer. I miss it and I can’t find it anywhere. She brought me one time (10 yrs. ago) some seeds from Romania, I planted them in my garden (I live in S.California) and all I got out of all those seeds was one tall, thin plant, with just a few leaves on it. It dries up in the winter but comes back in the spring. I treasure those leaves and I throw them in whatever soup I’m making just for the color. Pls. e-mail to let me know how can I purchase them. Thank you.

  15. 15 Sheryl

    I would like to try your orach seeds! Please let me know where to send my $5. Thank you so much!

  16. 16 Theresa

    I purchased a flat of Orach from a local farmer’s market here in Plymouth, MA and I’m giving them a whirl. I hope they grow as beautifully as some of the pics on these websites and taste good, too! I love Spinach! And Popeye rocks!

  17. 17 nancy

    i got plants from local gardener?landscaper
    mt yard is full of p. orach
    i love it in salads and steamed like spinact, served with vinegar, and as salad greens mixed with other greens

  18. 18 Sean Edwards

    I really enjoy purple greens, especially Kale for my soups that I make… I would to to try the orach seeds!

  19. 19 Rene Pomerleau

    I tried starting a few seedlings from naked, purchased seed with terrible luck. Ultimately the slugs won - devoured those too-tender seedlings before they could do anything. I’d like to try again by direct seeding some of your natural seed. Do you still have some available? How can I get the $5.00 to you?

  20. 20 andy

    Hello, No more seed at all, sorry about that!
    -Andy and Julia

  21. 21 Adam Jones

    This sounds great too bad you don’t have anymore seeds will you be getting anymore?

  22. 22 John

    Here in Olympia, WA my small crops self seeded prodigiously. The original seed I found was from territorial seeds in OR. I will note that the oarch was one of the first crops to emerge in the recent cold, wet spring and they did exceedingly well.

  23. 23 Delinda

    Sounds like orach equates to food security. Sign me up! We just had a local chef ask our farm if we grow orach for market. So, a week ago, I finally got around planting the red orach seed packet I had already bought from rareseeds.com All the varieties of spinach that were seeded are emerging, but no orach :( Does it take longer to germinate? My husband asked if I planted to deep! Will your seed go through the Earthway Seeder, which disk? …so many questions!! Julia, thank you for putting this out there.

  24. 24 Nadya

    Yesterday I picked up a bag of ‘mixed greens’ at our Farmers Market, & found some BEAUTIFUL purple leaves I thought were quinoa (which I’m growing) … but what great colour! & tender & tasty to boot!
    Today I saw one of the farmers at the Natural Food store, & asked her about the variety - she had to think a minute, then said, “not Quinoa - Purple Orach!” & said they’d sold it by the bunch at the Sat Market, & had pretty good reception. It’s the first year they’re growing it, so still working on the promotion, too. I found your blog looking up seed sources - very nice!
    My 7 year old daughter collects wild lambs quarters & cooks them up - we call them “Emily Greens” as she loves them so much! Know she’d enjoy the purple as well …
    I may have grown it years ago, as my former hubby is a botanist, & we often grow ‘unusual’ plants. He has a nice patch of nettles (can I just say, nettle pesto is a WONDERFUL spring option!!), & he has a small Seakale patch (some from wild harvested seed). I have a ‘good King Henry’ (perennial chenopodium) that is FINALLY pretty happy & setting lots of seed - I’ve been using the leaves all summer.
    So now orach is on the list … & it looks like I could plant some now for fall harvest. But which to grow? I’ve found several sources inc Bountiful Gardens, Territorial, Nichols, & wild garden seed … liked your comment about the ‘paper’ around the seed helping germination! Aurora sounds like a fun ‘mixed bag’ of colours ….

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