A Curious History of Vegetables: Aphrodisiacal and Healing Properties, Folk Tales, Garden Tips, and Recipes - Wolf D. Storl (2016)
Forgotten, Rare, and Less-Known Vegetables
Good King Henry (Chenopodium bonus-henricus or Blitum bonus-henricus)
Family: Chenopodiaceae: goosefoot family
Other Names: all good, everlasting, fat hen, Mercury, poor man’s asparagus, wild spinach
TAKEN EXTERNALLY: poultice eases rheumatic pains, scabies, and skin rashes
TAKEN INTERNALLY: prevents scurvy (antiscorbutic)
Symbolic Meaning: plant of kobolds and alpine spirits, related to milk magic for summer pastures
Planetary Affiliation: Mercury
Like spinach, Good King Henry is a member of the Chenopodium family. It has three-pointed, deeply green leaves that resemble goose feet in shape and look like they have been slightly powdered. The tiny, colorless, plain blossoms cluster neatly in formation on a “truss” arising from one stalk.
Good King Henry was once one of the favorite leaf greens in Europe—that is, before the upstart spinach arrived and took its place. The tender green leaves are among the first to come in the spring. They can be prepared as one would spinach, and taste especially good with eggs. The tender shoots—that were once bleached by putting a bucket over the plant—were considered a delicacy. When they were about as thick as a pencil they were harvested, peeled, and cooked like asparagus. This dish is still eaten in parts of England and Scotland—known as Lincolnshire asparagus, it is eaten with mayonnaise, lemon butter, or herb butter.
In England and other northern European countries Good King Henry was considered a quite healthful food. Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654), who preferred Good King Henry to spinach because it is firmer and—according to him—tastier, put the plant under the rule of Mercury. That is significant since Mercury is the healer among the gods. In English folklore the plant itself is even often referred to as “Mercury.” An old proverb reveals the high regard for the plant: “Be thou sick or whole, put Mercury in your cole [vegetables].” Culpeper prescribed Good King Henry internally for driving winter scurvy out of the limbs and externally as a poultice for skin wounds, gout, and rheumatic pain. British shepherds gave the roots to their sheep to treat “coughing.” Farming women gave the leaves to the hens so they would grow fat and healthy; indeed, “fat hen” is another English name of the plant. Leather tanners used the seeds to make Shagreen leather (Grieve 1982, 365). The British cherished Good King Henry so much that they took the seeds to their colonies in North America, where it promptly thrived as a wild invasive plant species.
But Good King Henry was also very much honored in other places,1 and its various names all capture basically the same message—“all good”: in German, allgut; in French, toute bonne; Dutch, algoede; Spanish: toda buena;Italian, tutta buona; and in Medieval Latin, tota bona.
It is said that St. Henry was the first to make a healing poultice out of Good King Henry and some other healing plants used for leprosy, but we do not know which St. Henry this was, as there were quite a few of them. The plant was known and used long before Europe was Christianized; the name of the patron saint was simply added to legitimize the continued use of the plant.
The German name for “Henry”—either “Heinrich” (“king of the hedge,” from the Old Germanic haganrich; [hag = “hedge,” rig = “king”]), “Heinz,” or “Hinzl”—is, as Jacob Grimm noted, an old name for a kobold, an imp with flat feet like a goose. Just as we learned about the “The Fairies of Cologne” in the chapter on peas, such kobolds—or sprites, or pixies—were believed to attach themselves to homesteads or village settlements, helping people with their work, feeding and watering the animals in the barns, sweeping, chopping wood, and generally ensuring everything was running smoothly. They would also play practical jokes on any servants who were lazy. For their work, the kobolds enjoyed receiving a small bowl of milk with a small piece of bread once a week and on holidays as a gesture of thanks. They did not, however, like to be seen—except once in a while by children and fools, as they have pure souls. A tale from the Swabian Alps tells how an impudent fellow—surely an early overly curious scientist—once strewed flour or ashes on the floor to get prints of their goosefeet. Since they always try to hide their feet, this angered the kobolds, who disappeared forever. But the plant—in German called “schmozenheiner” (dirty Henry)—has ashy goosefeet-shaped leaves to this day. (Marzell 1943, 938).2
Illustration 89. Good King Henry (Heinrich Marzell, Wörterbuch der deutschen Pflanzennamen. 1943)
Other goblin-friendly herbs have been given the name “Heinrich” in German. These are often called “dog” plants in English, such as dog’s mercury (Mercurialis perennis)—böser Heinrich (bad Henry) in German—a purge plant that causes severe diarrhea and vomiting. Purple loosestrife and blueweed are both referred to as “stolzer Heinrich” (proud Henry) in German; various kinds of docks are roter Heinrich (red Henry), and knotweed is eisern Heinrich(iron Henry).
Good King Henry likes to grow around garbage dumps, alongside rural roads, and near house and barn walls. Since it flourishes under the direct sun and in soil saturated with cow dung and urine, it grows exceptionally well near the Alpine huts housing the workers who tend cattle pastured over the summer. Naturally, it is also part of the wild food cooked by herders and dairy folk (who stay up in the high Alps with the cattle over the entire summer season); stinging nettle, sour dock, and Good King Henry—often called “shepherd’s spinach” in German—all grow around these huts and are, next to cheese and milk, part of the herder’s cuisine. In many places milk magic is practiced with Good King Henry. In the Ore Mountains and in Swabia, the root is used to neutralize wicked curses made on the milk. The shepherd speaks the following:
Good King Henry, you serve me well.
My poor cow is not feeling well.
Go up and down the village lane
and bring back her health again.
If the milk wasn’t as pure as it should be, the milk vessels would be rinsed with a decoction made with Good King Henry.
Good King Henry was always in high demand as a healing plant. The alpine shepherds used it for open wounds, swellings, and tumors; they wrapped and fastened the leaves over the affected area. In older times it was used for leprosy, consumption, and pleurisy. It was made into healing salves under the name “smear dock.” In Switzerland it was known as “home plant”—growing as it did near the house and barn; its healing strength was thought to ward off the demons that harm the cows and their udders (Hoefler 1990, 25). In Valais, Switzerland, anyone stung by stinging nettle would rub the afflicted area with Good King Henry, saying:
In Nomeni Patri
Rub nettle and nettle petal
With Good King Henry
And don’t let the nettle settle
Good King Henry has some interesting near relatives that are also almost completely forgotten garden vegetables: including lamb’s quarters (or pigweed), an excellent wild vegetable; cultivated garden orache (Atriplex hortensis); and Strawberry Blite. Jesuit’s tea (Chenopodium ambrosioides), a highly aromatic and effective vermifuge, is a relative, too—as is quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa), the delicious seed grain from Peru, and the mystic tumbleweed that rolls across the plains in the West.
Good King Henry well deserves to be introduced to your garden. It likes well-fertilized, moist soil and a sunny place. In my experience—and not surprising given its habits—it grows well next to house walls, where it comes back year after year, making very little work for the gardener. Who knows, maybe a friendly kobold will move in right along with the plant.
Good King Henry Vinegar ✵ 2 QUARTS
7 ounces (200 grams) fresh Good King Henry leaves ✵ 1 dash vanilla powder ✵ 2 quarts (2 liters) fruit vinegar ✵ 4 tablespoons honey
Put the Good King Henry leaves in a large (more than 2 quarts) jar. Add the vanilla powder and vinegar. Lightly screw on the lid and let stand for three weeks at 70 °F (24 °C).
Stir the honey into the vinegar. Through a fine cloth, pour the vinegar mixture into sterilized jars and seal.
Pane Nero ✵ 4 SERVINGS
1 pound (455 grams) flour ✵ 1 to 2 ounces (40 grams) yeast ✵ 1 cup water (235 milliliters) ✵ 1 pinch herbal salt ✵ 1 tablespoon black mustard or finely ground pure wood ash ✵ ½ cup (115 grams) Good King Henry leaves ✵ olive oil (for brushing)
In a large bowl mix the flour, water, yeast, salt, and mustard or ash. On a flat, floured surface, work into a dough. Cover and let rise at room temperature for 2 hours. Mix the Good King Henry leaves into the dough. Cover and let rise for 1 hour.
Preheat the oven to 350 °F (175 °C). Grease a baking sheet. Shape the dough into a loaf and place on the baking sheet. Brush with the olive oil. Bake at 350 °F (175 °C) for 50 minutes or until golden brown.