• Chenopodium bonus-henricus
• Family Chenopodiaceae
• Hardy perennial
Today, grocery stores throughout North America offer fresh produce all year round. Even where the selection is limited to cardboard carrots and limp, brown-tinged iceberg lettuce, the frozen food case holds a variety of nourishing vegetables. Still, as winter drags on, it’s only natural to develop a craving for something really fresh, perhaps as proof that spring is on the way at last. What a joy it is when the first tentative shoots of edible plants begin to prick through the soil. Spring greens are an ancient tradition that is well worth keeping alive, and Good-King-Henry (Chenopodium bonus-henricus) is an easy-to-grow herb rich in iron and vitamin C that blends well with such better-known potherbs as dandelions, nettles, and sorrel.
Mixed Spring Greens
Good-King-Henry is native to Europe and was brought to North America by the early European colonists as a potherb. It now grows wild here and there in the northeastern United States and Canada.
Think of Good-King-Henry as a sort of perennial spinach, to which it is related; other chenopodiums include lamb’s-quarters (C. album), epazote (C. ambrosioides), and quinoa (C. quinoa). Stems up to 2 feet tall bear dark green, succulent, arrow-shaped leaves with smooth or wavy edges and a mealy undersurface. Spikes of tiny greenish flowers appear from May through September. In early spring, pencil-thick shoots push up from the fleshy, branching roots, and these are prized, especially in England, as a substitute for asparagus.
Good-King-Henry grows best in fertile, well-drained garden soil. It’s one of the few herbs that prefer partial shade. Buying a plant or two is an easy way to get started with this herb. Seeds are available but may be slow to germinate (established plants self-sow fairly readily, however). Stratifying the seeds (chilling them in a moist medium such as vermiculite) for a few weeks improves germination. Thin or transplant seedlings to 1 to 2 feet apart. Fertilize the plants occasionally during the growing season. Harvest leaves lightly and shoots not at all until plants are three years old. If you mulch the plants heavily in late fall with compost or leaf mold, the shoots will be white and especially tender. The leaves are most tender in spring, too. Established plants can be divided in early spring.
Names! This herb has an abundance of them. Besides Good-King-Henry, people have called it allgood, fat hen, goosefoot, English mercury, and smearwort. The origin of the name Good-King-Henry is open to debate. Mrs. C. F. Leyel, author of Herbal Delights (1938), maintained that the herb was named for King Henry IV of France, who promised a chicken in every peasant’s pot; Good-King-Henry fattened the fowl and then was cooked with it. (The name fat hen commemorates the use of the herb as poultry feed.) Other writers held that no connection with a king was intended: the herb was called good-Henry (“king” just slipped in somehow) to distinguish it from a different, poisonous bad-Henry, named for a mischievous household spirit from German folklore. Still others said good Henry was a helpful spirit who performed domestic chores for a saucer of cream. The species name, bonus-henricus, means “good Henry”, whichever one it refers to. The generic name, Chenopodium, means “goosefoot” and refers to the shape of the leaf.
Other names allude to Good-King-Henry’s healing properties. English mercury distinguishes the herb from French mercury (Mercurialis annua), a member of the spurge family; both mercuries were thought to relieve indigestion. The English one was prescribed as a diuretic and laxative as well. Smearwort? The herb was an ingredient of an ointment recommended for joint pain. The leaves were also made into a poultice to cleanse chronic sores. Allgood implies that the whole plant was useful, as it was. The roots were fed to sheep as a cough remedy, and the seeds were used in preparing an untanned leather known as shagreen.
Some consider Good-King-Henry to be milder than spinach, at least if picked in early spring; it tends to become bitter later in the season. Spring greens generally include a little of this and a little of that, though—whatever is available among the potherbs—so you can balance tanginess with blandness, throw in a little sorrel for its acid bite perhaps, and steam it all gently and briefly until just tender. Then enjoy, and think spring!
• Goodwin Creek Gardens, PO Box 83, Williams, OR 97544. Catalog $1. Plants.
• The Thyme Garden, 20546 Alsea Hwy., Alsea, OR 97324. Catalog $1.50, refundable. Seeds.
• Well-Sweep Herb Farm, 317 Mt. Bethel Rd., Port Murray, NJ 07865. Catalog $2. Plants, seeds.