Orach, 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.
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?
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