Lincolnshire has long been known as the garden of the Midlands, with the combination of vast amounts of agricultural land and good fertile soil, it produces more vegetables than any other county in England. As well as being the largest potato producer in the UK, Lincolnshire also produces a significant amount of the country’s wheat and maize crops. However, it’s the revival of one of its lesser known crops that is of interest to us here.
Chenopodium bonus-henricus or ‘Good King Henry’ has been grown in Lincolnshire for hundreds of years. It was originally a native plant of southern Europe that made its way to England via the Romans. Throughout the centuries it has acquired many names, including Lincolnshire Spinach, Wild Spinach, All-good, English Mercury and Poor-Man’s Asparagus, which is an obvious testament to its popularity and longevity. It’s a semi-wild plant that was traditionally grown in English kitchen gardens for its edible asparagus-type shoots, which kept growing long after asparagus had faded, but through the ages its leaves and flowers also found their way into many a Lincolnshire dish.
Good King Henry grows to around 75cm high with a long stalk and arrow shaped leaves. It has the appearance of a perennial spinach, but has a very different genus and is not as sweet. The early flushes have a subtle peppery flavour that steadily becomes more bitter as the season progresses. The whole plant, leaves, stalks and flower buds are all edible. The leaves can be boiled, steamed or eaten raw in salads. The young shoots and stalks can be picked before they go hollow and steamed or boiled, and are eaten like asparagus, while the flower buds can be, for example, sautéed in butter. The seeds are also edible as a grain crop in a similar way to Quinoa.
The plant’s name is derived originally from the German, “Guter Henrick”, however, the existence of so many alternative names confirms that the plant has been known throughout the UK for a long time. As a crop, Good King Henry was a feature of many Tudor gardens and there is lots of archeological evidence to suggest that it also played an important role within the Anglo-Saxon diet. Rich in vitamins C and A, as well as calcium, the crop was valuable to poorer countryside workers and Scottish crofters who often turned to the crop for a source of nourishment after field clearances.
Historically, the plant has provided much interest for both gardeners and herbalists alike, with John Evelyn (1620 – 1706) noting that the young shoots of the plant known as English Mercury can be eaten like asparagus, or later boiled up for a pottage. The herbalist John Gerard (1545 – 1612) also made much of the plant, as did the French gardener M. Vilmorin-Andrieux, who noted in his The Vegetable Garden (1885) that it was extensively grown in Lincolnshire with ‘almost every garden having a bed’.
In modern Britain, the main use of Good King Henry is localised to the central and northern reaches of Lincolnshire. However, with the intensive growth of local farmers’ markets and the increasing interest in local produce, it is only a matter of time before this versatile little plant grows in popularity to find its place on our plates once more.