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Strawberry spinach is an herbaceous annual that produces gently toothed, spade-shaped leaves and berry-like red fruits on long spindly stems. It can reach heights of one meter and is entirely edible from roots to seeds. The tender leaves are slightly thinner than traditional spinach varieties, with a similar taste and slightly earthy finish. The mildly sweet-tart berries are dense clusters of small seedy vesicles, similar to that of a mulberry. Underground, the parsnip-like tap root is sweet and crisp, marbled with streaks of beet red and white.
Strawberry spinach is available spring through summer.
Strawberry spinach is a bit of a misnomer as it is unlike any other conventional spinach variety and certainly lacks the sweet berry flavor that one may expect. Botanically classified as Chenopodium capitatum, it is a relative of beets, quinoa and amaranth. Also known as Beetberry, Strawberry Blite, Strawberry Goosefoot, Strawberry Stick, and Indian Ink, this plant produces small “strawberry-like” fruits which are often considered secondary to its leaves for culinary applications.
Like most spinach varieties, Strawberry spinach contains oxalic acid which can interfere with the absorption of calcium. People prone to developing kidney stones should be especially aware of their oxalic acid intake.
The leaves of Strawberry spinach may be substituted for other commonplace spinach varieties, but the berry-like flowers are best reserved as a visual accent, as they are quite tart. Young leaves are good raw in salads but they should be harvested before the plant bolts and goes to flower, as they lose their sugar content and develop an insipid bitter flavor. Larger leaves are best cooked and may be sautéed, steamed or added to soups. Flavor affinities include, bacon, pancetta, anchovies, shrimp, crab, lamb, cheese, cream, eggs, garlic, shallots, mustard, mushrooms, potatoes, raisins, lemon, dill, basil, lovage, thyme, nutmeg, sorrel, pine nuts, walnuts, sesame (seeds and oil) and soy sauce.
Native Americans used the red fruits of Strawberry spinach to dye skin, clothes and basket weaving fibers.
While Strawberry spinach is not a predominant variety found in supermarkets today, it is quite an old-fashioned plant. A native of North America where it has grown in the wild for centuries, this plant has only recently been cultivated domestically. Some evidence of its early cultivation exists in ancient monastery gardens of Europe, but today it is usually grown for its curious decorative aesthetic. Cold hardy and easy to grow, Strawberry spinach thrives in full sun and moist soils. It can grow year-round in areas with mild winters, but can become invasive when left to self-sow season after season.