Monday, March 7, 2011

Strawberry Blite, it's not a disease!

Despite it’s common name (formerly of the genus Blitum) Strawberry Blite, Chenopodium capitatum, also known as Beetroot and Strawberry Spinach, has some attractive features.  The small ball shaped flower clusters (up to ½ inch) start out green but shortly turn bright red. These flowers mature to bright red edible fruit clusters (to ¾ inch) that contribute to the plant’s common name. The leaves of this species, as with other members of the genus, can be eaten like spinach, fresh or cooked.

Since I was interested in seeing how the aesthetic value of this plant developed, I did not taste the leaves or roots, both of which are edible.  I did try the red berries on several occasions.  They were slightly sweet and not unpleasant, but the seeds were rather large and hard.



Nice leafy example of Strawberry Blite in good soil, late spring.
 This plant is in the same genus as naturalized species Lamb’s Quarters, C. album, and as such I expected it to be equally vigorous.  My experience with this plant has been mixed. I was able to get good germination of the seed under lights without any pretreatment, but I did have problems getting plants to develop after transplanting, in a variety of soils.  I had better results direct sowing the seeds.  The seed pack indicates that they should reach maturity in 40-60 days.  In my crowded New England garden it took nearly 2 months for the plant to reach good size.  It has an upright and branching form, 8-24 inches in height. The gray-green leaves are triangular (as much as 4 inches on the lower branches) and alternately disposed on the branches.  The overall appearance is somewhat coarse.

The wild distribution of C. capitatum is throughout the northern half of North America including Alaska and into the Southwest.  It is not usually found in the Southeast or lower Plains States.  It is listed as a native to Connecticut, but as an introduced species to Massachusetts.  The native habitat is in open woods and can also be found along roadsides. It is often observed reappearing after fires.  It is noted the Sierra Club Naturalist's Guide to Southern New England that the seeds are very long lived.  As with other members of the genus, it produces large amounts of seed.  This may be a consideration in the garden, for once established, it may be difficult to permanently eliminate this plant from the site.

Overwintered plant developing flowers at end of May.
While listed by many sources as annual, I found that it is actually monocarpic.  Well at least I did after I looked up what that means.  A monocarpic plant lives to produce a single crop of seeds then it dies. In my case a couple of clumps of this plant grew as a leafy mass after transplanting and then developed flowers and fruits the following year before passing on.  A monocarp is not necessarily short-lived.  For example, Black Bamboo, Phyllostachys nigra, is also monocarpic, but it may take 70 years before it reaches maturity to produce a crop of seed.  After that the plant will die a natural death.

The genus Chenopodium has high wildlife value.  It is a food source for many birds including the snow bunting, catbird and morning dove.  This species serves as a larval host for the common sootywing butterfly (Pholisora catullus).  In addition to its value as a food plant, the red berries have been used dyes by several Native American groups.

The seeds are available from B&T World Seeds and Horizon Herbs (my source).  While I would really like to use seeds from my own eco-region, the provenance of these seeds is not likely from this area seeing as one supplier is in Europe and the other in Oregon.

For me the jury is still out on this plant.  Since I let most of the berries go to seed, I will watch for its return and test the flavor of the roots and leaves this time.  As a garden plant, its habit was too lax to be a featured highlight, although it could work in the background.  Has anyone else had experience growing this plant?   Stay tuned.

10 comments:

Curbstone Valley Farm said...

Interesting! I've been looking at strawberry spinach seeds in some of our heirloom seed catalogs. It really does look intriguing, but as I'd never seen it in person, let alone tasted it, I was a bit hesitant to try it. Maybe now I will, thanks!

Forest Keeper said...

Thank you. I am always looking for new edible native plants. I will have to look for this one.
I'm always munching on something while I'm working with the trees.

johanna said...

I'm trying to grow this from seed right now -- the seeds germinated, but the plants are so tiny! Much smaller than the lettuce, chard, or kale I started from seed. Do you have any tips?

Thanks!

Curtis said...

Johanna,
Many of my seedlings were slow to recover from transplanting, so direct seeding is a better solution. It started indorrs, be very careful with the roots when potting up or transferring outside. My plants did the best where they had a lot of sun and little competition from other plants. I don't have any tips for bringing the growth along more quickly.

Dianne Campbell said...

I have been looking for the name of this plant for many yrs. and recently found out the name. I brought back some wild seedlings that were being uprooted where my nephew was building his cabin. I first seen this plant some 50yrs. ago and never seen it again till at my nephews cabin 4 yrs. ago. the seedlings have multiplied and I now have 10 plants

Curtis said...

Diane,
I've seen it listed in seed catalogs as 'Strawberry Spinach' or 'Beetberry', both more attractive names.

Anonymous said...

It grows wild in central Manitoba and in my yard like a weed. When we were kids, mom would make a tea from the berries and make us drink it. The Ukrainian people believed it would help us stop wetting the bed.
Les

gordonf said...

I've seen this plant both in British Columbia and in Quebec. Both times, I thought that the clusters of berries were very pretty but were probably a disease. Who knew? Now that I want to buy seeds of it, I find that it is very hard to find a supplier!

Curtis said...

I see that Park Seed has seeds, you can find it by searching for the term 'strawberry spinich'.

Laura said...

There are a few other mail order nurseries that have Strawberry Blite: boundifulgardens.org, wildgardenseed.com, and rareseeds.com are a few.

Nice to see where you have landed, Curtis! Only one other person has mentioned this plant to me since your native annuals project, so it is certainly unusual and not familiar to most gardeners.