Fat Hen

Chenopodium comes from the Greek chen, meaning goose, podus or foot.

Fat Hen was considered important enough in Anglo-Saxon times to have places named after it.

Fat Hen has been used as a wild vegetable since ancient times in Europe, and its remains have been found in Britain’s Bronze Age sites and pre-Norman sites in Ireland.

According to several sources, it was among the most commonest wild spinach. However, the introduction of spinach from southwest Asia eventually replaced Fat Hen in British and European cooking.

While in America, the introduction of maize and beans gradually replaced the use of the plant.

Scientific Name

Chenopodium album

Family

Amaranthaceae.

Botanical Description

Fat Hen is said to sometimes resemble dock (Rumex obtusifolius) because of its broad leaves and spikes of green flowers. It is, however, unrelated to the dock.

Status

Several species are native to Britain, Europe, and western Asia and naturalised in North America.

Habitat and Distribution

An opportunistic plant species that can take root in wastelands, disturbed ground, roadsides, fields, compost heaps, rubbish dumps and gardens.

Parts Used for Food

Leaves, seed.

Harvest Time

Plants are annual or perennial, with various flowering times depending on the species.

Food Uses of Fat Hen

Chenopodium seeds are rich in starch. These can be ground and added to flour to bake bread, cake, biscuits, pancakes or muffins. Alternatively, add the seeds to salads, and stir-fries or use them as sprouted seeds.

The leaves and young stem tips of Fat Hen can be used as a spinach substitute. The tender leaves can also be used to make salads, stir-fries, sauces or pesto.

The water in which the tender greens are cooked can be saved and drunk as a nutritional broth or frozen as stock cubes.

The young budding flowers can be cooked and eaten by steaming and tossing in butter like broccoli.

Fat Hen Recipes

Nutritional Profile of Fat Hen

Chenopodium greens are rich in protein, vitamins A, B1, B2 and C, and niacin, calcium, phosphorus, iron, and omega-3 fatty acids.

The seeds of some species are higher in lipids and nutrients such as calcium and magnesium than many other grains.

Herbal Medicine Uses of Fat Hen

Chenopodium spp. are occasionally mentioned in old herbals as a treatment for an ailment of the times, such as scurvy, sores and gout.

The plant may still be used to treat inflammation, rheumatism or toothache.

Other Uses

The crushed roots can be used for soap, or the oil obtained from the roots can be used as a skin emollient.

Safety Note

Fat Hen is high in oxalates (see here). The greens contain oxalic acid (oxalates) that could affect calcium absorption or which may cause mouth irritation when eaten raw or in excess. Avoid if you have kidney stones.

Some herbalists suggest that the seeds of Chenopodium may be toxic if eaten in excess. Others say the seeds should not be eaten because of their rich saponin content. They may pose a risk to people suffering from arthritis, rheumatism, liver disease or intestinal inflammation.

Take care not to mistakenly identify the lookalike plant Black Nightshade (Solanum nigrum), which is poisonous.

References

Couplan, F. (1998) The encyclopedia of edible plants of North America. New Canaan: Keats Pub.

Elias, T. S. & Dykeman, P. A. (2009) Edible wild plants: a North American field guide to over 200 natural foods. New York: Sterling.

Grigson, G. (1996) The Englishman’s flora. Oxford: Helicon.

Hatfield, G. (2008) Hatfield’s herbal: the secret history of British plants. London: Penguin.

Kershaw, L. (2000) Edible & medicinal plants of the Rockies. Edmonton: Lone Pine.

Mabey, R. & Blamey, M. (1974) Food for free. London: Collins.

Mac Coitir, N. & Langrishe, G. (2015) Ireland’s wild plants: myths, legends and folklore.

Nyerges, C. & Begley, E. (2014) Guide to wild foods and useful plants. Chicago Review Press.

Pachauri, T. et al. (n.d.) Analysis of nutrient content of underutilized grain: chenopodium album | springerlink. Chemistry of Phytopotentials: Health, Energy and Environmental Perspectives. 93–96.

Quave, C. L. & Pieroni, A. (2015) A reservoir of ethnobotanical knowledge informs resilient food security and health strategies in the Balkans. Nature Plants. [Online] 1 (2), 14021.

Thayer, S. (2010) Nature’s garden: a guide to identifying, harvesting, and preparing edible wild plants. Birchwood: Forager’s Harvest.

Tilford, G. L. (1997) Edible and medicinal plants of the West. Missoula, Mont: Mountain Press Pub.

Watts, D. (2007) Dictionary of plant lore. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

Wyse Jackson, P. (2013) Ireland’s generous nature: the past and present uses of wild plants in Ireland. St. Louis: Missouri Botanical Garden Press.

Related Posts

Comment

  1. Fat hen was the Bain of our lives years ago when hoeing sugar beet, one of the toughest weeds in east anglia , nice to know it has a purpose on this planet besides blunting hoes and driving old farm workers to drink. I might give it a try instead of spinach, out of spite mind.
    Regards Steve

  2. Fat hen grows itself most cheerfully in my garden, and I enjoy eating it.
    However, I should not have fed it to our dog!
    His raw meat is supplemented with boiled fresh vegetables … BUT fat hen gave him a most unpleasant digestive upset, poor lad.
    On Googling, I found that it is indeed poisonous to dogs. Lesson learnt.

    • I would love to know which book is best for New York foraging. My property is said to be overgrown for which I received a summons – but this was the first time in years I saw a monarch butterfly. I enjoy your website and knowledge tremendously! Wish you were in New York for a workshop forage outdoors. Keep well!

  3. spinach has oxalates too, correct? I would love to see a reality check comparing the amounts. Why did spinach largely replace it in cooking, was it mostly the larger leaves were faster?

  4. In truth almost everything contains “anti-nutrients” like oxalates, or lignins, from grains to nuts to beans to wild greens like fat hen. If you ate 50 heads of broccoli it would kill you! Ditto 50 cups of espresso. The rules are: don’t eat too much of anything in one go, eat as wide a variety as possible of eveything, and know what needs cooking (elderberries, rowanberries, wild watercress etc.)

Leave a comment