Saturday, 16 September 2017

Fat Hen

When Chris and I took on our allotment we found it was infested with Fat Hen, Chenopodium album. The 'album' part of the name presumably refers to the white mealy coating on the underside of the leaves. We have pulled out dozens, perhaps hundreds, of plants and our hoe has dealt with many more. In fact (said he smugly) I had to go to a neighbouring allotment for a photograph. Even so, it will have seeded profusely, an average plant being able to produce about 3000 seeds, so there will be many more to deal with.
The inflorescence of Fat Hen. Drayton Allotments, Daventry.
16 September, 2017

The Chenopodiums are often referred to as goosefoots (Greek: chen goose, podos foot) and this refers to the shape of the leaves. In fact the leaves of Fat Hen are not noticeably goose-foot-like and really it is an extremely dull-looking plant with insignificant flowers. Presumably poultry would eagerly feed on it but more importantly, and what makes it interesting, is that it was an important food of early man.
Its edible qualities are not surprising as it is closely related to beetroot and even closer to spinach and qualifies as a 'poor man's pot herb'. (Another relative, quinoa,  Chenopodium quinoa, is increasing in importance and 2013 was declared by the United Nations as The International Year of the Quinoa.)
The big question: is it a British native? Most floras seem to assume that it is, yet it is described in the most recent flora of Northamptonshire [Ref 1] as, 'An annual of disturbed, nutrient-rich, waste and cultivated ground'. Where, prior to the introduction of agriculture, were there such habitats? We could imagine it thriving in the trampled and dung-enriched mud left by groups of the now-extinct Aurochs, Bos primigenius, or other grazing or browsing animals. Perhaps, but I suspect it was a crop impurity in those precious bags of seed brought to Britain by Neolithic farmers, in which case it should be classed as an archaeophyte.
Certainly Fat Hen has been in northern Europe for a long time and was one of the plants whose remains were discovered in the stomach of Tollund Man, a corpse found in a Danish bog and dated from the 4th century B.C. Seamus Heaney wrote of him in his evocative poem, The Tollund Man:

                       Some day I will go to Aarhus
                       To see his peat-brown head.
                       The mild pods of his eye-lids,
                       His pointed skin cap.

                       In the flat country near by
                       Where they dug him out,
                       His last gruel of winter seeds
                       Caked in his stomach...

Tollund Man perhaps consumed Fat Hen seeds as part of a ritual meal but they are often used in other parts of the world and analysis shows that, like quinoa, they are highly nutritious.
Some examples of  Fat Hen are easily overlooked. Drayton Allotments,
Daventry. 16 September, 2017

But enough of these paeans of praise: for gardeners and allotment holders it is a weed. The chances of me having an egg and fat hen sandwich are on a par with me saying to my wife, in a trembling voice, 'Chris, you remember that lottery ticket we bought...'


Gent, G and R. Wilson (2012) The Flora of Northamptonshire and the Soke of        Peterborough. Botanical Society of the British Isles

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