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Egg on My Face

Winter is a great time to catch up on garden reading. In studying a description of a plant I thought I knew well, I suddenly realized I was completely mistaken.

Orache, or Mountain Spinach, (Atriplex hortensis) has varieties with green leaves, red-purple ones, or yellow; they've been grown since ancient times for food and medicinal purposes. (Young leaves are cooked or used raw in salads.) But the yellow and red are also ornamental.

The plant grows two to six feet tall, and only one to two feet wide. When hot weather arrives, the plant is quick to bolt, producing feathery sprays of tiny flowers (red in the red-leaved varieties), and then copious seeds, which will dependably self-sow. Mature seed pods also look good in dried arrangements.

In 1993 I bought a flat of pretty young plants labeled Atriplex hortensis, from a grower I like. When it came up by itself the next year, I was enthusiastic. Over the years I have given away innumerable seedlings, careful as always to identify it. Then two years ago a friend said she thought it was not Atriplex but Perilla.

Perilla frutescens, beefsteak plant, is known as Shiso in Japan, where it's used extensively in cooking. Like Atriplex, it also has green and red-purple varieties.

The Perilla I was familiar with has leaves whose edges are fantastically ruffled, toothed and fringed. The plant in question had simple, only slightly toothy leaf edges. My friend said it was what came up from seed, the year after she grew fringed Perilla. I knew that the next generation of a wild pollination can have different characteristics from the parents, but I discounted her information, preferring to believe the grower's label.

Now I had found pictures of Atriplex on the Web. It looked wonderful, but it was not what I've been growing. I looked further: indeed, what I had was Perilla. Another giveaway was that Atriplex is reported to taste like its relatives spinach and lambs' quarters (a weed I love to eat). Perilla, though its flavor varies by variety, is quite aromatic. The plant I had mistaken all these years tastes both hot and sweet, like a spicy licorice.

Why was it so hard to realize my friend was right? I got one idea in my mind, and couldn't change it. Of all those people I misled, I hope some read this!

© Copyright 2003 Catherine Holmes Clark


Published in the six Nashoba Publishing papers on Friday, 28 February 2003

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