Friends of Hablitzia tamnoides, the Caucasian Spinach

The Scandinavian Heirloom from the Caucasus

Hablitzia tamnoides is a woodland climber from the Caucasus region that has in recent years become one of the most sought after vegetables amongst permaculturists and enthusiasts of forest gardening. However, until just a few years ago it was a rather obscure plant grown by a few botanical gardens in Europe and a handful of Scandinavian gardeners; that this plant should be one of the most productive and tasty vegetables would certainly have seemed unlikely. Why should this plant be “discovered” in Scandinavia? Well, the plant was originally introduced to gardens in Finland, Sweden and Norway as an attractive climber around 1870. It took only a few years for people to discover that the leaves were also edible. The plant never became very popular, but was grown in some of the biggest manor house gardens of the day. We have not so far been able to find any reference to the use of Hablitzia as a wild edible in its home territory in the Caucasus, although this may be because there have been few studies of wild food traditions in this region. Relic plants from the original plantings have survived to this day in particular in Finland and Sweden witnessing its hardiness. Thanks to the efforts mainly of Leena Linden at the University of Helsinki, seed has been collected from several of these surviving plants and deposited at the Nordic Genetic Resource Centre in Alnarp, Sweden (Nordgen). Hablitzia tamnoides is found particularly in spruce and beech woods in its native environment, among rocks and in ravines and along rivers. Hablitzia is named in honour of Carl Ludwig Hablizl, a naturalist from the 18th century who was also vice-governor in the Crimea. The epithet tamnoides refers to its resemblance to Black Bryony (Tamus communis), a native found in southern England and further south in Europe. Black Bryony is also a climber and its leaves are very similar in appearance to Hablitzia. In antiquity, the young shoots of Tamus were apparently preferred to asparagus and they are still used today in various spring dishes in several Mediterranean countries (they should, however, be cooked)

My oldest plant is now 8-9 years old and produces over 100 good tasting shoots very early in spring and these can be cut at about 5-10cm (later just the tips of the shoots are used), this stimulating the plant to produce more shoots. I’ve harvested 2 or 3 times before I let the plant get on with its life. It has an incredible growth rate early in the year, climbing to 3m in just a few weeks. I have grown many perennial edibles here and I know no other edible which is anywhere near as productive so early in the season. Use the young shoots in all dishes for which one would have used spinach – in soups, pies, pizza, indian and oriental dishes etc., it’s also great in spring mixed salads. In Sweden the plant is called Rankspenat, whereas here in Norway it is Stjernemelde. In Finland, look for köynnöspinaatit and Kaukaasia Ronimalts i Estonia. Caucasian spinach was the English name adopted in an article I wrote for Permaculture Magazine a few years ago (see http://www.hagegal.info/innlegg/media-diverse-store-filer/media-stephen-h.php), but Scandinavian spinach and climbing spinach have also been used.

I have also grown wild-sourced seed (from Georgia) and the plants are quite different from the Scandinavian type with smaller flowers, red, not green stems, they seem less hardy and seed seems more difficult to germinate. Perhaps this variety may turn out to be better adapted to milder climates? It certainly seems that the Scandinavian type has adapted over time to our climate.

Search for this species in the most important reference works on edible plants (e.g. Ken Fern’s Plants for a Future and Stephen Facciola’s Cornucopia II: A Sourcebook of Edible Plants) and you won’t find it! Neither is it currently listed by the comprehensive Royal Horticultural Society’s Plant Finder (www.rhs.org.uk/rhsplantfinder/plantfinder.asp) nor is it in The European Garden Flora (with 17,000 taxa). Plants and seed are now offered by various seed saver organizations including the Norwegian Seed Savers (http://www.facebook.com/home.php?sk=group_131302060257210&ap=1) and I’ve listed seed at Seed Savers Exchange in the US for the last couple of years. It is also soon to be available as plants in European nurseries as I’ve supplied seed to several over the last couple of years. Although Hablitzia doesn’t have large showy flowers it is in my experience definitely a plant that gets noticed, so I also classify it as an edimental (edible ornamental).

Botanically, Hablitzia belongs to the Goosefoot family (Chenopodiaceae) and is the only species in its genus (monotypic). It is therefore related to other well known vegetables such as beetroot, swiss chard, spinach, and garden orach (Atriplex hortensis), to the South American grain crop, quinoa (Chenopodiun quinoa), and the herb epazote or wormseed (Chenopodium ambrosioides) used in Mexican cuisine. Good King Henry (Chenopodium bonus-henricus) is also frequently cultivated as a spinach plant in herb gardens and wild collected in Mediterranean countries, but it is poor in comparison with Hablitzia in its usefulness (productivity) as a spinach plant and tastes too strong for my liking. Finally, there are a number of wild herbs and weeds which have long been used for food, such as fat hen (Chenopodium album) familiar to gardeners, sea beet and hastate orache (Atriplex hastata), both commonly found near the sea.

I hope that members share their experiences and pictures here so that we can collectively get a better picture of how well Hablitzia grows in different climates.