All-american With Foreign Roots

THE REAL DIRT

February 28, 1993|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

Each spring when I sow spinach in the garden, I feel like saluting the seed. It's like planting a piece of Old Glory.

I've always considered spinach the All-American vegetable, probably from watching Popeye cartoons as a kid. Spinach was Popeye's salvation. Time and again, spinach gave him strength to roust his enemy Bluto, who, in retrospect, bore a striking resemblance to Saddam Hussein.

Back then, the world had its own Blutos. So, as red-blooded kids growing up during the Cold War, we felt it our duty to polish off that khaki-green blob of patriotism on our plates. As if eating spinach would keep America strong.

I've clung to that notion for years. Imagine my surprise when, while researching spinach's roots, I learned it was the Persians, not Popeye, who discovered the plant. Spinach hails not from America, but from that part of the Persian Empire that is now Iraq.

Its foreign roots aside, spinach deserves a spot in the home garden. The glossy, dark-green leaves are rich in iron and vitamin A, and have six times more protein than lettuce. There is evidence that spinach lowers one's blood cholesterol, and that it may one day help cure cancer.

The recent resurgence of spinach as a salad green makes it a hearty addition to the spring garden. Supermarket spinach can be limp and unappealing. Much of it comes from all the way from California.

Spinach thrives in cool weather. Sow seed in rich, well-drained soil in early spring, as soon as the ground can be worked. Thin seedlings to 12 inches apart, saving the discards for salads. Spinach pouts when grown in crowds.

Spinach's nemesis is the leaf miner, a fat green maggot that burrows into the leaves, producing a squiggly trail that appears unappetizing at best. To thwart the leaf miner, protect plants with Reemay or any kind of floating row cover.

The plants succumb in hot weather, sending up tall seed stalks -- their flags of surrender -- at the first sign of summer. Gardeners who procrastinate in planting spinach may end up with one slim harvest, or none at all.

Spinach also makes a fine fall crop, often producing several times before snuggling down for winter. Well-mulched plants usually survive the cold, perking up around March and beating spring crops to the table by three to four weeks.

For summer eating, try growing these heat-resistant spinach substitutes:

* Orach, which was praised by ancient Greeks and is among the oldest of cultivated plants.

* New Zealand spinach, discovered on a 1770 voyage by Capt. James Cook and which probably saved the lives of his scurvy-afflicted crew.

* Malabar spinach, a 6-foot vine with spinach-like leaves the size of a man's hand.

Real spinach has been cultivated for thousands of years. (The word spinach means "green hand" in Persian.) Curiously, it was first grown only as animal fodder: The Persians fed spinach to their cats.

Eventually, spinach emigrated to China, where farmers used it to line their rice fields, and Europe, where spinach found its way into some unusual recipes. The English mixed chopped spinach in oatmeal; the Dutch baked it in tarts.

Colonists brought spinach to the New World. The first three U.S. presidents -- Washington, Adams and Jefferson -- all grew spinach with seed supplied by David Landreth, a Colonial

nurseryman from Pennsylvania.

Landreth introduced a new variety of spinach called Bloomsdale, which drew praise at the time for its heat tolerance. His firm, established in 1784, later was moved to Baltimore, where it remains. It is the oldest seed company in the country.

Bloomsdale is one of the most popular spinaches on the market. Another favorite is Melody, with its rich green rosettes of savoyed, or ruffled, leaves.

I'm drawn to a variety called Popeye's Choice. Served up with olive oil, of course.

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