Good King Henry (Not the VIII)
Although we’re nearing the end of January and our look at perennial vegetables, I’m going to try to fit in a few more. Today’s perennial is Good King Henry. My criteria for choosing this plant is: (1) an easy plant to grow, (2) grows well in the shade, and (3) gives you a lot of “bang for the buck” in that you can eat almost every part of the plant. Also, I liked the name – subjective as that is.
Background. Good King Henry (GKH) was once very popular in Europe and England, and brought to America by the early colonists. It was grown for hundreds of years until the end of the 19th century. While it has naturalized in the U.S., it is now an uncommon food there.
This plant makes for a very nice ground-cover and lovely landscape plant. An added bonus is its ability to grow in the shade. It grows best in USDA hardiness zones 3-9. It will flower in May-October depending on the USDA Zone where it is planted.
Eating. GKH is in the same family as spinach (like perennial spinach), and its leaves are used in much the same way; however, its shoots are eaten like asparagus, flower buds like broccoli, and the seeds are an edible grain like Quinoa.
Description. The Stems grow up to 2 feet tall and bear dark green, arrow-shaped leaves with smooth or wavy edges. Spikes of tiny greenish flowers appear from May through September. In early spring, pencil-thick shoots push up from the fleshy, branching roots.
Growing. GKH grows best in fertile, well-drained garden soil. It’s one of the few herbs that prefer shade. Buying a plant or two is an easy way to get started (if you can find them). Otherwise, Seeds are available, but they 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. If you mulch the plants heavily in late fall with compost or leaf mold, the shoots will be white and especially tender.
Harvesting. Harvest leaves lightly and shoots not at all until plants are three years old. Thereafter, spring shoots harvest lasts up to three months (much longer than asparagus). If harvesting spring shoots, let the first 2-3 grow to maturity to encourage plant root growth and then harvest the subsequent shoots. The leaves are most tender in spring, too. Established plants can be divided in early spring.
Other Names. Goosefoot, English Mercury, Fat Hen, Poor Man’s Asparagus, Smearwort and All Good. And what’s not to love about a plant named Fat Hen or All Good.