The Forgotten Herb
It takes its name from a mythical fairy king, ruler of the pagan pantheon. It was served at the great banquets of Romans conquerors. The first English settlers to America considered it so precious that they carried it on their long voyage across the ocean.
And yet modern British gardeners are more likely to call it a weed and toss it in the rubbish heap than to serve it for supper. Such is the fate of Good King Henry.
Good King Henry, also known by the tastier sounding names Lincolnshire Spinach and Poor Man’s Asparagus, is a leafy green native to much of Europe, including our own temperate isles. Once a common potherb, it fell out of favour when the Industrial Revolution’s advance in transport made foreign produce more accessible to the average Brit. However, the feral descendants of ancient kitchen gardens often pop up in woods and meadows, much to the delight of discriminating foragers.
The young, bud-tipped shoots can be eaten like asparagus, while the leaves make a good substitute for spinach or kale. Any bitterness in the mature leaves can be removed with a soak in a salt-water bath.
If you can’t find Good King Henry in your local woods, you can try cultivating it yourself. The hardy herb is a great candidate for a low-maintenance, organic kitchen garden. It grows in any amount of shade, shows a typical British resilience against pests, and needs only as much water as the sky can offer. Just make sure to allow the seeds to cold-germinate and to avoid harvesting until the second season. You can buy the seeds mail-order from numerous small, sustainable growers, including Otter Farm in Devon and Manor Farm Herbs in Oxfordshire.