Margaret Lauterbach

Mountain spinach might work as a perennial in the Treasure Valley

Hablitzia tamnoides, or Caucasian Mountain Spinach.
Hablitzia tamnoides, or Caucasian Mountain Spinach.

When we talk about perennials, we’re usually talking about ornamental gardens, not kitchen gardens. We know of course there are perennial edibles such as asparagus, berries and rhubarb. There are other edible crops that are perennial, but our winters are too cold for them to survive, so we grow them as annuals. Tomatoes, peppers and runner beans, for instance, are perennials we grow as annuals.

Some that do survive include lovage, sea kale, sorrel, Sweet Cicely, bunching onions such as scallions and Japanese negi onions, some leeks such as Carentan and Blue Solaise, and dandelions and groundnuts. Self-seeding is not regarded as perennializing; perennials come back from the roots if they die back. If winter is mild, like our winters usually are, some kales, cardoons, carrots and celery survive and then set seeds too.

I’ve recently learned of a climbing perennial spinach that would tolerate our cold winters since it’s grown in Sweden and Norway, both colder winters than ours. Until recently, seeds for this climbing spinach have been very difficult to obtain, but now Fedco seed company is selling seeds for it, calling it “Caucasian Mountain Spinach” botanic name Hablitzia tamnoides. Stephen Barstow, author of “Around the World in 80 Plants” is so intrigued by this foodcrop that he started a Facebook page, “Friends of Hablitzia.” I think the tamnoides species is the only one in that genus.

Fedco claims it’s hardy in zones 3 to 6, citing its provenance or original home is in the Caucasus mountains, although some plant explorers say it’s pretty rare there. In that area, though, it grows under trees and in other shady conditions. Others acknowledge that in Sweden and Norway it’s often grown to screen parts of houses and other structures from view. It has attractive, tasty, heart-shaped leaves, and grows best in very early spring, producing these non-bitter spinach-like greens. Some who have grown it claim it thrives best in at least part shade, and is easily killed by hot direct sun. A friend in Ireland said it grew well in his greenhouse, but when he planted it outdoors it died out. We think it may have had too much natural moisture, but gardeners need more experience and more information about this crop. My friend’s outdoor soil could also have had the wrong alkalinity for it.

Germination and first-year growth are both said to be slow. Prior to germination, the tiny seeds should be stratified for a few weeks, and rather than putting a container of soil planted with those seeds in your refrigerator, just plant them in a container of moist plant mix that you can leave in a protected place outdoors. Let Mother Nature lend her talent at stratification, which some could call chilling treatment.

Once started, in subsequent early springs it sends up numerous shoots from the root. These shoots may be dug and divided, multiplying your planting, or may be eaten, for the shoots too are delectable. Barstow’s 10-year-old Hablitzia (in Norway, I think) sends up about 250 shoots in very early spring. If you’re fortunate to get it started, you may want to remove those shoots to prevent proliferating climbing spinach plants.

Caucasian mountain spinach will require good drainage, and thrives in a bed of deep loam and manure. It may shoot up rapidly to more than 6 feet in height, blossoming in mid-summer with a profusion of tiny green blossoms. The seeds are minute, shiny black. The mature vine is quite attractive.

It is a member of the goosefoot (Chenopod) family, so may be attacked by leaf miners. Those critters do attack spinach, Swiss chard and beet leaves in my garden, although I started a new raised bed west of my house a couple of years ago, and have grown Swiss chard there undamaged by leaf miners. Perhaps reduced sun exposure is the reason leaf miners’ tiny fly parents have left it alone. I think it sounds like an ideal location to start Hablitzia.

Hablitzia’s tolerance of very cold temperatures, early emerging and growth habit, low water usage and shade tolerance make this a very promising new food for our area.

Send garden questions to melauter@earthlink.net or Gardening, The Statesman, P.O. Box 40, Boise, ID 83707.

Park visit

Don’t forget to visit summer at the pop-up park at Edwards Greenhouse this week. That park will be demolished after Sunday, Feb. 4, to make way for spring plants.

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