Sunday, November 23, 2014

Plant Story--Chenopodium album, aka lambsquarters and fat hen

Chenopodium album, Amaranthaceae
Chenopodium album, Amaranthaceae
Chenopodium album is a Eurasian plant that has established itself across most of the world. But you may well walk by it without noticing.

Chenopodium album is in the plant family, Amaranthaceae, the amaranth or pigweed family. Many places you will see it listed as having its own family, Chenopodiaceae, but recent work merged the Chenopodiaceae into the Amaranthaceae. 

The scientific name says "white goose foot", the chen for goose in Greek,  podium foot, and album is white. The flowers are whitish, but so are the new leaves (picture above) so while the namer might have meant the flowers, I see white on every plant.


Chenopodium, Amaranthaceae
Chenopodium album, Amaranthaceae
Part of what is the most fun with C. album is getting someone else to realize they know it. It goes by so many common names that it can hide in plain sight. For example:



Lambsquarters and goosefoot. The USDA plants list calls Chenopodium album lambsquarters. But it calls many other species of Chenopodium goosefoot (goosefoots), and many people in the United States definitely call C. album goosefoot.

Pigweed. Another common name for Chenopodium album is pigweed. Chenopodium species (Google link) and Amaranthus species (the weedy ones: Google link) are similar enough that it is not surprising that Chenopodium album has historically been called pigweed. Today, plant scientists are inclined to restrict the name pigweed to Amaranthus species. 

Wild spinach. If you are learning edible or useful wild plants, the books and instructors will probably call Chenopodium album (and its close relatives) wild spinach.

Fat hen. In England the common name for Chenopodium album is fat hen.

This is a plant that lots of people recognize when you point it out to them and where the common name varies so much that speaking about  "lambsquarters" may get a blank look until you can find a plant to show them.

And most places, you can point out the plant.

Clemants and Mosyakin in the Flora of North America called Chenopodium album "one of the worst weeds and most widespread synanthropic plants on the Earth." (synanthropic means human-associated, if, like me, you didn't know it). Lambsquarters is reported in every state of the United States and across Canada (see USDA plants). Clemants and Mosyakin described many sizes and forms because C. album both evolves ecological races, changing in response to local conditions, and also hybridizes with other Chenopodium species it meets, which creates additional shapes and sizes of the plant.


Chenopodium, Amaranthaceae
Chenopodium, Amaranthaceae
How much of a weed problem Chenopodium album poses depends upon the crop and the cultivation methods. Its crimes are that it is adaptable and capable of very rapid reproduction. It can grow and create seeds under a very broad range of conditions. When conditions are good, one plant can produce thousands of seeds (500,000 for example). That means that a few plants in the field this year could be a carpet of plants next year, and thousands of little weeds will significantly decrease the yield of any crop.

Chenopodium album is found around the world and occurs on weed lists just about everywhere. While definitely considered an agricultural weed in the United States, I do not find it on noxious weed lists here. Noxious weeds are plants considered so damaging to human activities, especially agriculture, that they are actively eradicated. Apparently cropping methods in the U.S. usually control C. album adequately. Thus, although abundant and widespreadChenopodium album often is either unnoticed or ignored. It lacks the characteristics that make less abundant plants noxious weeds: spines or poisons or characters that interfere with farm machinery. Its weedy characteristic is to grow fast and multiply. When lambsquarters is extremely abundant it definitely threatens crops.  Otherwise it has simply followed us around the world, growing well on the edge of homes and farms and along roadways. 

Chenopodium album, Amaranthaceae
Chenopodium album, Amaranthaceae
It is tricky to read about Chenopodium album in the literature because it is easily confused. For example, there are some 34 species of Chenopodium listed in the Flora of North America, most of them native to North America. Chenopodium album is in my home state of Colorado, but more often I see C. berlanderi or other native Chenopodium species. There are twenty four other species of Chenopodium reported in Colorado, and most appear very similar to C. album.

Chenopodium Amaranthaceae
Chenopodium but probably not album since it lacks white on the new leaves
Amaranthaceae
Sometimes the older literature helps understand a mixed-up plant species, but in this case it is little help because most old plant books (1500s, 1600s) were herbals, describing plants used in medicine. Lambsquarters isn't in them. People have used it for millennia but not as a medicine. What it was was a vegetable, a "pot herb" or cooked green. It grows so well that people across the world gather it wild and rarely bother to plant it. The name "wild spinach" is apt. Spinach is a Chenopodium relative. In fact, lambsquarters is my favorite of the edible weeds. It is soft, flavorful and does not have to be repeatedly rinsed to remove bitterness. I do tend to eat it early in the season when the caterpillars that also like to eat it are too small to notice if I don't get them rinsed off. The edible plant books listed below will provide information on gathering and preparing lambsquarters. 

You can readily find toxicity warnings for lambsquarters. It contains oxalic acid which can cause poisoning. So does its relative spinach. Almost all wild foods have some sort of disclaimer, whether it is to be careful of allergies or avoid if you have serious health problems. Certainly always gather from a site where the plants won't pick up something nasty from the environment. And, as with most foods, including spinach, C. album is not something you should make your entire diet for years. Nevertheless it is a fine and tasty addition to a complex diet. See discussion in Dave's Garden, Eat the Weeds or Samuel Thayer's or John Kallas' books.

Chenopodium sp., Amaranthaceae
Chenopodium sp., Amaranthaceae

So lambsquarters, hen fat--whatever you want to call it--is both a widespread weed and a handy wild food.


Comments and corrections welcome.

References
Chenopodium album in Australia
Clemants, S. E. andS. L. Mosyakin Chenopodium album  accessed 10/4/14
Deane, Greene Eat the Weeds Chenopodium album, getting goosed http://www.eattheweeds.com/chenopodium-album-getting-goosed-2/ accessed 11/18/14
Holm, L., J. Doll, E. Holm, J. Pancho, and J. Herberger.  1997. World Weeds. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Jones, P. 1994. Just Weeds. Chapters Publishing Company, Shelburne, VT.
Kallas, J. 2010. Edible Wild Plants. Wild foods from dirt to plate. Gibbs Smith Publisers, Layton UT.
Lanni, W. T. and B. A. Wertz. 2014. Common lambsquarters. Penn State Extension http://extension.psu.edu/pests/weeds/weed-id/common-lambsquarters accessed 11/18/14
Thayer, S. 2006. The Forager's Harvest. A guide to identifying, harvesting and preparing edible wild plants. Forager's Harvest Press, Birchwood, WI.
Vickery, R. 1995. Oxford Dictionary of Plant Lore. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Kathy Keeler

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