Spinach, kale, leaf lettuces: The leafy greens of spring salads that we are most familiar with tend to produce best in the Texas winter and the very early spring cooler weather.
Locally grown greens in heat of summer
When the Texas summer heat arrives, these plants tend to turn bitter, bolt or just bake and die. If you wish to continue eating locally grown greens into the heat of summer, you might have to look more globally. I’m talking about a collection of leafy greens that originate in the tropical and subtropical regions of the world.
- Similar in appearance to winter greens; different in taste
These plants are similar in appearance to our winter greens but have a stubborn defiance to our Texas heat, making them worthy of a trial run. Keep an open mind to their differences in flavor and texture.
Leafy green transplants
The plants I am listing below are heat- anddrought- tolerant, but they do like a little shade from the afternoon sun. They can be planted from transplants as late as June, if you are prepared to water and shade them until they are established.
- Malabar spinach (Basella alba)
Malabar is a robust climbing perennial vine that needs a sturdy fence or trellis for support. Originating in the tropical regions of India and Indonesia, it is also referred to as Indian spinach, Ceylon spinach and vine spinach.
Malabar is not really a spinach at all. Though it has tender, green leaves that cook down quickly when sautéed, the leaves are fleshy and succulent with an earthy flavor. If cooked too long, they develop an okra-like sliminess.
Harvest leaves frequently and cut the plant back to keep it in check. It can become very invasive if allowed to spread, but no matter how large, it will die with the first hard freeze. For some ornamental color, there is Basella rubra, a red-vined variety.
- Heirloom Swiss chards (Perpetual, Lucullus and Ruby)
A member of the spinach family, Swiss chard has large, tender leaves with delicate flavor. There are three heirloom chards that date back into the 1800s that have a higher heat tolerance than other chards: Perpetual spinach is bolt-resistant, which means not going to seed too early. Bolt, to the contrary, means to go to seed. Lucullus chard is the most heat-tolerant, with Ruby chard doing very well in the heat also.
- Amaranth (Amaranthus gangeticus)
A low-growing plant with a variety of bright colors and variegation, the leaves contribute many vitamins and protein to a salad or dish. Leafy amaranth is a common ingredient in cuisines from China and India to the Caribbean. The flavor is spinach-like with a touch of artichoke. Young leaves can be used fresh in salads and larger leaves can be steamed or sautéed as a substitute for spinach. The variety that is grown for grain, Amaranthus cruentus, is not good as an edible green.
- Sweet potato leaves (Ipomoea batatas)
Sweet potato vines are valued for their bright, light green contrasting color in flower beds and hanging baskets, but, in fact, they are tasty and full of vitamins, minerals and fiber.
They can be used just as you would spinach, raw or cooked. They have a slightly bitter taste if eaten raw but lightly cooked, they are sweet. In Asian cooking, they are often stir-fried with ginger, garlic and soy sauce.
Of course, the sweet potato tuber is an added benefit and the edible leaves, flowers and vines can be continually harvested until the tubers are ready. The whole sweet potato plant is a major food crop in China.
- Dandelion greens (Taraxacum officinale)
Dandelion is a member of one of the largest plant families – the sunflower, which includes daisies and thistles. It has its origins in Eurasia and was purposely spread over the world by emigrants for its medicinal value.
Usually recognized as a weed in the spring and summer lawn, dandelion greens are packed with nutritional goodness. They are slightly bitter and best mixed with other veggies to make them more pleasant to eat. They can be tossed into your morning green smoothie or eaten in a fresh salad. They are also tasty cooked.
Tips for best results
If picking wild greens, be sure that they have not been sprayed with pesticides. Take the young leaves as they will have a milder flavor. Do not wash them until ready for use for longer storage.
Recipes can be found for all these lesser-known leafy greens by searching for them on the internet, and you may find that there could be recipes in cookbooks you already possess.