The good leaves of spinach

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Spinach has not left our plates since the reign of Catherine de Medici, fond of “the grass of Persia.” Spinach varieties grown today in our latitudes all come down from the “big spinach”, obtained by plant breeding in the middle of the 17th century.

The “spinach” plant was named in 1753 by the inevitable Swedish naturalist Carl von Linné. The latter was probably based on the thorny nature of the fruits of the wild form, coming from the mountainous regions of Iran, the Caucasus and Afghanistan, which is sometimes called the “Persian grass”. For botanists, spinach is Spinacia oleracea, which has long been part of the family Chenopodiaceae , but phylogenetic classification now places in the cosmopolitan family of Amaranthaceae .

The spinach crop started in the Middle East, probably from the fourth century. The Arabs introduced spinach to Seville in Andalusia around the year one thousand, but it did not reach France until the very beginning of the thirteenth century, probably because of the Crusaders. The fruit, agglutinated in balls, would have clung to the clothes or the hairs of the horses, thus traveling incognito, as far as Europe. The seeds, finding a ground and a favorable climate in our latitudes, would have sprouted.

One of the favorite vegetables of the Renaissance

Spinach has gradually replaced on the plates the arroche ( Atriplex hortensis ), whose taste is more rustic. At the time, fresh spinach balls, cooked under the name “espinoches”, were eaten. But it was not until the sixteenth century and Catherine de Medici that spinach really became popular and its culture intensified.

In the kitchen, a recipe “à la florentine” is a gratin of meat or fish made from spinach with a Mornay sauce. This name evokes the city of Florence, which Catherine de Medici left in 1533 to marry the King of France Henry II. Note that at the beginning of the seventeenth century the French loved spinach cooked … sugar!

The evolution of the plant over the centuries

As a general rule, spinach, like carrots, is a biennial plant. It is therefore necessary to wait two years to harvest its seeds. In addition, spinach has a dioecious behavior. Dioecious plants require a male foot and a female foot to reproduce. There is, however, a tendency towards hermaphroditism, which has been obtained little by little over the course of the selection.

The tuft of acaules leaves, that is to say without apparent stem, develops from a rather large taproot, hence the need for a deep soil. The dark green leaves, spear-shaped in wild spinach, are oblong and wavy in cultivated varieties . These all derive from “Holland spinach” or “big spinach”, obtained around the middle of the 17th century and whose fruits have no thorns.

The myth of Popeye

Popeye, an angry sailor with prodigious strength, was created in 1929 by Elzie Crisler Segar. The character is rooted in the popular belief that spinach provides tone through its richness in iron. Now with 2 mg per 100 g, it comes well after seaweed, vegetables dry and even cereals to prevent anemia! In terms of iron, the champions are red meats, crustaceans and dark chocolate.

In contrast, spinach is a good source of vegetable fiber, vitamins C and E, but especially provitamin A (carotene) and folic acid (vitamin B9). It is ideal in dieting; made of water more than 90%, it provides only 18 to 25 Kcal / 100 g. Spinach has real laxative virtues and is sometimes called “broom of the stomach”.

An easy culture

Spinach sows in place from March 1 to April 15 and from August 15 to September 30, at a rate of 2.5 g seeds per square meter ( germinative capacity 4 years). The staggering of the seedlings allows to spread the harvest period. After emergence, the plants are thinned by distancing them by 20 cm. A soft, well-drained soil rich in humus (spinach consumes a lot of nitrogen) is recommended, as well as abundant and regular watering. Indeed, the plant must not run out of water to develop leaves of good taste quality. A half-shade exposure is appreciated especially at the hottest hours of the summer, in order to avoid a too fast rise to seeds. Harvesting takes place as and when needed, approximately 40 to 50 days after sowing.

Patrick Mioulane

Spinach in everyday language

Although it has a mild flavor and a pleasant texture on the palate, spinach is not unanimous, especially among children, which made comedian Groucho Marx (1890-1977) say: “This world would be better. for the kids if it was the parents who were forced to eat the spinach. “ . But this vegetable, on the other hand, has a rather good reputation in everyday life, since “Putting butter in spinach” means improving one’s situation or way of life and “Buttering spinach” consists in reconciling people (Balzac a even used the phrase “mend the spinach”).

On the other hand, it is necessary to avoid in front of a painter to use the expression “A landscape with spinach”, because that indicates a bad array invaded by the green, or to spend his time to “Go to the spinach” since in slang language he is to be maintained by a prostitute (which she goes to asparagus)!

Some semantics

It will be noted that the English term “spinach” is the closest to the botanical name. The word “spinach” comes from the Latin medieval spinachium , which finds its origin in Persian Aspanaand Arabic isbinakh , which designated the plant and gave the Spanish name espinaca . In France, “epinart” was written up to the seventeenth century, and in popular parlance it was often said “espinarde” or “espinace”.

Dr. Kimberly Seltzer

Postdoctoral Scholar, UC Berkeley Research Assistant, MIT

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