Fat Hen – A Foraging Guide to Its Food, Medicine and Other Uses

Fat hen has been used in food and medicine since ancient times.

It was among the commonest wild ‘spinach’ and was eventually replaced in cooking after the introduction of spinach from south-west Asia.

Scientific Name

Chenopodium album



Botanical Description

This wild edible species is said to sometimes resemble dock (Rumex obtusifolius) because of its broad leaves and spikes of green flowers. It is, however, unrelated to dock.


Several species are native to Britain, Europe, 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 breads, cake, biscuits, pancakes or muffins. Alternatively, add the seeds to salads, stir fries or use as sprouted seeds.

The leaves and young stem tips 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 used as a skin emollient.


Some herbalists suggest that the seeds of Chenopodium may be toxic if eaten in excess.

Others go further to say that the seeds should not be eaten at all because of their rich saponin content.

They may pose a risk to people suffering from arthritis, rheumatism, liver disease or intestinal inflammations.

The greens too may contain oxalic acid that could affect calcium absorption or which may cause mouth irritation when eaten raw or in excess.

Take care also not to mistakenly identify lookalike plant black nightshade (Solanum nigrum), which is poisonous.

Further Reading


  • COUPLAN, F. (1998) The Encyclopedia of Edible Plants of North America. New Canaan, Conn.: 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?; Renton, WA: Lone Pine Pub.
  • MAC COITIR, N. & LANGRISHE, G. (2015) Ireland’s Wild Plants: Myths, Legends and Folklore.
  • NYERGES, C. (2014) Guide to Wild Foods and Useful Plants. Chicago: Chicago Review Press.
  • PACHAURI, T. et al. (2012) Analysis of Nutrient Content of Underutilized Grain: Chenopodium Album, in L. D. Khemani et al. (eds.) Chemistry of Phytopotentials: Health, Energy and Environmental Perspectives. Berlin, Heidelberg: Springer Berlin Heidelberg. pp. 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. 1 (2), 14021.
  • THAYER, S. (2010) Nature’s Garden: A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting, and Preparing Edible Wild Plants. Birchwood, WI: 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, MO: Missouri Botanical Garden Press.

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