Loving Good King Henry

A recent discussion on the Plant Breeding for Permaculture facebook group had me rallying to the support of Good King Henry.

Good King Henry - Chenopodium bonus-henricus
Good King Henry (Chenopodium bonus-henricus)

The general consensus seemed to be that it would be a really great perennial vegetable if only it tasted better! Now I love Good King Henry and I have to admit I found myself feeling a little defensive on its behalf .... I think I may be over-emotionally involved with a vegetable! I like both the flavour of its leaves and its young flower shoots lightly steamed. I agree it is bitter - but no more bitter than kale I would say.

In the course of my love affair with Good King Henry I've researched it extensively. On the whole I would say it gets more bad reviews than good ones. Although bitterness is the usual complaint I've also seen it described as insipid, tasteless and bland! Good reviews generally have the leaves as preferred to spinach and the young shoots as being equal to asparagus. I haven't begun to untangle what is at variance here, whether it is just individual taste, or whether the flavour varies across plants, or maybe seasons, soils, moisture/light conditions or cooking methods.

Poached egg with Good King Henry shoots
Poached egg with Good King Henry shoots

But I was smitten before ever I tasted Good King Henry - or saw it! From the start I was intrigued, like others are, by the quaint name with its hint at a close relationship between man and plant. And I went on to discover that it is a pot-herb that has probably been in continuous use in Britain from Medieval times or earlier (pollen from Good King Henry has been found at Neolithic/Bronze Age and Roman sites - but as a common weed of disturbed ground it is hard to say for sure to what degree it formed part of the occupants' diets). The tradition of its use mostly died out during the last century, but is still within living memory especially in Lincolnshire. Here's my collection of echoes of that tradition in snippets I’ve found on the net and in Lincolnshire Life magazine:
"I want to tell you about mercury – Lincolnshire spinach – or in some parts of the country Good King Henry. Mercury is pronounced marcury in Lincolnshire and used to be very common in gardens. My family have always grown and eaten it and I have quite a large bed in my garden; being perennial it needs little attention and no matter the weather it comes up. This year particularly after all the rain in the summer vegetables will be late and mercury will fill the gap when we’ve finished the brocolli, kale, etc., until the peas, beans, etc. are ready. We eat it like spinach – boiled – and then I like it hot or cold – also I love the flowerheads and sometimes strip the leaves off and eat as ‘poor man’s asparagus’. My grandmother used to tell me because it was so deep rooted it was full of iron and minerals. For many years I’ve thought it was probably responsible for my good resistance to colds and infection. I do enjoy it and eat a lot – more than the rest of the family." Washingborough, Lincolnshire, March 1994.
From plantlore.com website
"The couple grow a spinach-like vegetable known as mercury, it is also known as Good King Henry, Lincolnshire spinach and poor man’s asparagus. Mr Sizer said it was once popular but you would not find in the shops now. “It’s like spinach and is full of iron,” he said. “Years and years ago when I was a young boy we used to have it at my granddads."
From Good Year at Allotments, Horncastle News 13th August 2009’
"i haven’t seen or tasted markery or marquery since i was a small boy. no one i have asked has heard of it except for one man who said it is a weed and takes a lot of getting rid of and he had only just succeded. mother treated it like a leaf vegetable and ate it often. grandfather had a large clump which he harvested year-round. it looked like a dock plant gone crazy. the very dark green leaves looked like black string when boiled and (to me) it tasted bitter but livened up cabbage no end. 
i would like to taste it again. i suspect markery is a local name for probably a more well known plant. please help." Verne, Lincolnshire
From Growsonyou.com website 9th April 2011
"It is a perennial in which the top dies down every autumn. It can be forced some years. It is one of the first cut and come again crops of the year which we still use." Brian Hornsey, Stamford
From Lincolnshire Life Nov. 2002
"My father, Dick Needham, of Grimoldby, near Louth, had a good-sized bed. I remember it had quite a bitter taste but ours was always well flavoured as mother used to boil it in the water that she had boiled a joint of bacon or ham in." MD, Scunthorpe
From Lincolnshire Life. Nov. 2002
"In the late 1910s and 1920s, when my father kept two pigs in the sty at the bottom of our garden in Millfield Terrace, Sleaford, Markery, as my mother called it, was one of the ingredients she collected in the zinc family bathtub for use as stuffing for the chines.
In the Second World War, our local greengrocer, Mr Hix, grew a fairly large area of the plant. It was cut just before the stems reached budding stage, made up into bundles, and sold as Lincolnshire spinach." Les Gostick, Sleaford

From Lincolnshire Life Nov. 2002
"The daffodil that used to come up in the midst of Mrs Leiver’s wild plot has come up again this year in spite of all the soldiers digging and traffic. It has 3 or 4 lovely blooms. “Fair daffodil, that comes before the swallow dares, And takes the winds of March with beauty.” Only it is April this year, all things are late. Father weeded the markery bed and it is beginning to grow. Sp cabb coming along too." Saturday April 11 8.30 pm 1942
From May Hill's WW11 Diaries
"I have been growing and eating mercury for the last eighty-six years and cannot understand why it isn't grown more often. It is the only vegetable I know that is completely pest free." Stanley Scarman, Theddlethorpe
From Lincolnshire Life Nov. 2002
I've also been pleased to find out that Good King Henry is still loved in mountainous regions of mainland Europe. A study on the use of wild plants in the Alps in Switzerland found that Good King Henry was amongst the four plants
mentioned most often in interviews with villagers (the other three being dandelion, nettle and elder). I found a recipe for potato dumplings stuffed with Good King Henry from a ski lodge in Switzerland, and, from the Apennines, one for olapri (Good King Henry) tartlets and one for pasta with orapi, smoked pancetta and salted ricotta.

But in case you're not in the Good King Harry fan club you might still take John Claudius Louden's pragmatic view that,
"A perennial spinach, however, whether from the Beta maritima, or Chenopodium Bonus Henricus, is very desirable in every garden, as a resource in case of neglect or accident, and because the plants being in perpetual maturity, and abundantly furnished with proper sap, are, as it were, ever on the alert to take advantage of any circumstances favourable to vegetation."
The Gardener's Magazine, Volume 2 1827
A nicely put case for perennial vegetables Mr Louden!

N.B. I sell a range of perennial vegetable plants on my website.