Spinach (Spinacia oleracea)
This tasty and nutritious annual plant originated in the area that is modern Iran. Arab merchants introduced spinach to India, and it then migrated to China, via Nepal. Chinese texts dating to 647 AD represent the first written records of the plant in cultivation. It was introduced by the Saracens to Sicily in 827 AD, and was being cultivated in Spain by the 12th century. By the 14th century, it was being grown in France and England, and quickly spread in popularity due to its abundance in early spring, when many other vegetables were just being planted. Catherine de Medici (who became queen of France in 1533), so loved spinach that she insisted it be served at every meal. The fact that dishes that include spinach are referred to as Florentine is an homage to Florence, Catherine’s birthplace. Not surprisingly, the English word “spinach” finds its roots, via Catalan and Arabic in the Persian aspanakh, which essentially translates as “green hand.”
Spinach is classed in the family Amaranthaceae, in the very good company of beets and Swiss chard, as well as amaranth, quinoa, goosefoot, and other food crops. Their close relationship are most obvious when these plants produce their tall clusters of small, insignificant flowers, followed by clusters of hard seeds. Experienced gardeners know that spinach will bolt or "run to seed" once the soil heats up in early summer, so it is most often grown as a cool season crop in spring and early fall. It also does well in late winter poly-tunnels.
Not only is spinach at its peak when other vegetables have yet to mature, it is an amazingly good thing to eat. The leaves are a rich source of vitamins A, C, E, and K; the complex B vitamins from niacin, riboflavin, and folic acid; the minerals magnesium, manganese, iron, calcium, potassium, copper, zinc, and selenium; as well as protein, dietary fibre, flavonoids, and omega-3 fatty acids. Spinach also contains oxalic acid, which inhibits the absorption of iron by the body. The availability of iron in spinach is increased if it is eaten with foods rich in vitamin C and calcium, so mixing it with citrus juice or dairy makes it more nutritious. Cooking spinach helps to break down the oxalates that inhibit iron and calcium absorption, but eating it raw is also perfectly healthy. Eating raw spinach frequently, though, can lead to the development of kidney stones in some people.
Spinach is a good example of a crop with highly geographically specific seed production. At the time of year when spinach seeds are ripening, temperature, humidity, and air flow are key to harvesting spinach seeds at their peak. It happens that much (if not most) of the world's spinach seed production occurs in Skagit County, WA, and in Denmark. These two locations have the ideal conditions of growing spinach seed - at least on the large scale. Open pollinated varieties like Bloomsdale Savoy and Monstrueux de Viroflay will set seed with relative ease for the home gardener. Many other varieties have been hybridized for the most uniform, fast-growing, disease-resistant leaves. Varieties like Seaside F1 are prized for growing as baby-leaf spinach, and are harvested less than a month after sowing.
There is some contention about where exactly the Spinach Capital of the World really is. Lexana, Kansas, Crystal City, Texas, and Alma, Arkansas all boast the title, and all three towns host an annual spinach festival. Crystal City may have a longer spinach-growing history in its region, but Alma just seems to want the title more. There’s an oversize bronze statue of Popeye to greet visitors, not to mention the town’s twin water towers – painted to resemble Popeye-styled spinach cans. The Alma Chamber of Commerce likes to call these the World’s Largest Spinach Cans. And in mid-April each year, Alma is transformed by its annual festival. Visitors can enjoy all manner of activities, from the quilt show, pie auction, amusement park, vintage tractor show, craft and food booths, to the 5k Alma Dog Run, the judging of the Spinach Growing Contest, the Spinach Eating Contest, the Spinach Recipe Contest, and something called the Spinach Drop.