Summer is coming, and for many of us in the warmer areas of the US, that means our beloved salad greens – like spinach and lettuce – are on borrowed time. The arrival of warmer weather is a perfect time to pivot into some really special heat-loving greens that keep our salads fresh, delicious, and interesting.
In Mexico, there is an entire class of greens that grow in the heat, called quelites (key-LEE-tays) that have a broad meaning, encompassing any edible tender green that grows in the heat of late spring to early fall. A study by the Institute of Biology at the University of Mexico lists over 300 species of quelites belonging to 46 botanical families that are eaten all across Mexico.
We’ll share two greens from Mexico, along with two from India and another from New Zealand. All of these can be planted now, are extremely heat tolerant, are vigorous growers, and don’t need much attention or great soil.
Let’s start with the vegetables from Mexico.
Huauzontle (wah-zont-lay), or Aztec Spinach, is a relative of quinoa and amaranth with very few equals in the summer garden. Full sun and triple-digit temperatures only bring on more growth for this cut-and-come-again food crop. Harvest the smaller leaves for a milder, spinach-like flavor and fresh use, or the larger leaves for a more robust broccoli-like taste that stands up to cooking. When the flower buds start appearing, strip them off their stems and use like broccoli florets - their mint notes compliment the broccoli overtones. Six to eight plants will provide enough leaves to harvest for daily salads for a family.
Seeds can be sprouted or grown as micro-greens for a highly nutritious yet extremely tasty treat any time of year.
Huauzontle has been documented as an important pre-Columbian Aztec food crop, considered to be valuable enough to use as money in paying tribute or tax payments to the Aztec government – records show 160,000 bushels were paid in one year!
Today it readily grows from Canada to southern Mexico and across the US.
Red Garnet Amaranth
When amaranth is mentioned, some gardeners immediately think of pigweed, while others think of Love-Lies-Bleeding, both of which are members of the amaranth family. Red Garnet amaranth is a strikingly beautiful food crop supplying bountiful amounts of leaves and seeds, all edible. We use the young leaves fresh like spinach, while the sprays of seed make a very satisfying gluten-free grain, used like quinoa. The burst of color from the young leaves brightens up any salad, instantly making it a conversation piece.
Considered to be native to Peru, it was another food staple of the Aztecs, who also made statues of their deities with amaranth seed and honey that was broken and distributed to eat as ceremonial food. The Spanish outlawed amaranth in an effort to force conversion to Christianity, burning fields and punishing farmers.
It survived, morphing into celebration treats such as dulce de alegria (dulce meaning sweet and alegria meaning joy in Spanish) and is a sweet candy-like confection made from popped amaranth mixed with sugar or honey.
Easy to grow, heat-loving and drought tolerant once established, amaranth can serve as a shade or windbreak while attracting birds who eat the seed and hunt insects, and provide a food crop on top of it all!
Next, we travel to India...
Green and Red Malabar Spinach
Easy to grow, delicious and versatile in the kitchen, this vigorous leafy vine is not related to true spinach yet produces abundant large meaty leaves that taste remarkably spinach-like. Malabar spinach loves the heat, while its cool season namesake bolts at the first sign of heat. As an added bonus, the red variety is simply gorgeous with its thick red stems contrasting with the heart-shaped dark green leaves and red veins. The green variety is just as tasty and prolific without catching the eye as quickly.
Malabar is a region of southwestern coastal India, and the spinach is native to India and Indonesia, making it the perfect summer green. Hot sunny weather helps it grow faster, and harvesting the leaves in a cut-and-come-again manner encourages more growth. We often grow it along the garden fence, training it to grow horizontally so we can walk along one side of the fence and easily harvest enough leaves for a family salad in a couple of minutes. Two days later, it’s hard to see that any leaves are missing.
Malabar spinach grows best in a richer soil than the Mexican greens, but a couple of plants reward you with a seemingly endless supply of leaves to eat and more than enough to share with your family and friends all summer long.
And finally, wind up in New Zealand...
New Zealand Spinach
Our final heat-loving, easy-growing, delicious green, New Zealand spinach slots into your garden right behind true spinach, as it loves the heat that causes spinach to bolt or wilt. Because it is a different species than spinach, it suffers little from pests or disease, making it ideal to succession plant in the same beds where spinach was.
The seeds are botanically classified as fruits containing several seeds. The tough outer coat that allowed the seeds to spread to neighboring islands make germination slow and somewhat uneven. Scarifying the seeds and soaking for 24 hours before planting speeds germination.
A perennial vegetable in warmer climates, it is grown as a tender annual in most of the US from late spring to early fall. Low-growing and leafy, it usually grows about a foot tall and 2 - 3 feet wide. The triangular, succulent leaves are most tasty when no more than 2-3 inches long, maturing to about 4 inches long. Use as a cut-and-come-again vegetable, it thrives in the heat with moderate moisture and won’t stop until the frost hits.
Bring the world to your garden this season with these heat-loving, high-performing heirloom vegetables that will keep your salads tasty and fresh into the fall.