New Zealand Spinach – All About This Low-calorie Plant

New Zealand spinach (Tetragonia tetragonioides) is a green vegetable from the fig-marigold family (Aizoaceae). It may look like regular spinach, and you can use it much the same way, but it’s not from the same family. Spinach belongs to the Amaranthaceae family and has very different growing conditions.

Though New Zealand spinach is native to New Zealand, Australia, and eastern Asia, it also grows abundantly in most parts of Europe, Africa, and North and South America. The fresh-green, dense foliage makes an attractive ornamental for your garden and gives a nutritious harvest all through the summer season.

Much like spinach, you can serve the mature leaves as cooked vegetables and the young, tender leaves in fresh salads. Since it’s packed with vitamins and low on calories, New Zealand spinach brings a host of benefits to any dish it goes in. You can either add it to compliment the main ingredients in your cooking or use it as the dish’s star, like “Pasta With New Zealand Spinach” or “New Zealand Spinach Greek Yogurt Dip.”

Let’s Get To It!

But what is the New Zealand spinach plant? Is it only consumed in New Zealand? What kind of conditions does it prefer to grow in. Let’s find out everything before planting these obscure vegetables.

Common NameNew Zealand Spinach Or Cook’s Cabbage
Botanical NameTetragonia Tetragonioides
Plant TypeEvergreen Perennial But Grown As An Annual In Colder Climates
Size (Fully Grown)4 To 6 Inches (About 10 To 15 cm) High And 6 To 8 Inches (About 15 To 20 cm) Wide
Sun ExposureFull Sun But Prefers Light Shade In Warmer Climates
Soil TypeWell-draining Sandy Soil
Soil pH6.8 To 7.0
Flower ColorYellow
U.S. Hardiness ZonesFrom 2 to 5 As An Annual And From Zones 6 To 11 As A Perennial
Native AreaNew Zealand, Australia, And Eastern Asia

Different New Zealand Spinach Varieties

Most nurseries and seed centers will only offer the generic variety by the name of New Zealand spinach. It also has plenty of other names that all refer to the same generic species. Sometimes, you’ll even find the word “Maori” on the seed packet since that’s the most commonly grown variety in the category.

Origins And History Of The New Zealand Spinach Plant

New Zealand spinach is one of the less-known vegetables that did not get the status as a food crop until recently. Though it has been growing in Australia, Tasmania, and New Zealand as a wild edible plant for a very long time, it wasn’t formally cultivated until the 18th century.

Māori, the indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand, used tetragonia’s leaves as an antiscorbutic (to prevent scurvy). The red berries aren’t edible, but they still found their use as a crimson dye for the natives.

For the rest of the world, the new Zealand spinach plant was introduced by captain James Cook in 1770. That’s where the green vegetable gets one of its names, “cook’s cabbage.” It was Sir Joseph Banks, explorer, and botanist, who introduced the species to captain Cook in Queen Charlotte Sound, New Zealand.

When the captain found its benefits in preventing scurvy, he brought it back to England with the crew. And after that, when they were back in England, the New Zealand spinach was first planted into Kew Gardens.

New Zealand spinach isn’t as widely cultivated as regular spinach, mainly because it’s not easy to grow and produces a smaller yield. The plant still has its advantage over spinach. Some of them are heat-resistant and have an ornamental appearance, which is why people often grow them in their home gardens.

How To Recognize A New Zealand Spinach Plant?

What is the New Zealand spinach plant, and what does it look like? Let’s find out.

What Does The Plant Look Like?

The New Zealand spinach is a fast-growing bush that grows low on the ground in a trailing manner, which is why it’s often grown as a ground cover. Each plant can grow up to 1 to 2 feet (about 30 – 61 cm) tall, with a spread of 1 to 3 feet (approximately 30 – 91 cm).

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Do The Leaves Look Just Like Spinach?

The leaves are about 3 inches (about 7,6 cm), dark green, and triangular-oval in shape. They look much like regular spinach, except that they are smaller and succulent. The leaves’ succulent nature is why the New Zealand spinach is also sometimes called an ice plant.

The taste is also like spinach, but it will turn a bit bitter in mature leaves. Just like spinach, New Zealand spinach also contains oxalates. It will need to be blanched in hot water, followed by rinsing with cold water to reduce the oxalate content before cooking.

What Are The Flowers Like?

The plant gives small, yellowish-green flowers. It’s primarily a self-pollinated plant that flowers and fruits quite vigorously. But, thankfully, flowering doesn’t affect the flavor or the yield of the greens.

What Climate Is Best For Growing New Zealand Spinach?

New Zealand spinach is a hardy plant. It may germinate slowly, but once the seeds sprout and the plant starts developing, there’s no stopping this plant!

Even though it’s not that hard to grow the plant, it’s still helpful to know the kind of temperature and climate it favors so you can plant it in your garden with the confidence that it will thrive.

Temperature

New Zealand spinach is a warm-weather perennial, though it also grows as an annual in colder climates. The plant grows best when the temperature is between 60 to 75°F (about 18 to 24°C). Unlike regular spinach, New Zealand spinach isn’t frost-tolerant. So, you’ll have to wait until the last expected spring frost is over before you can plant it in your garden.

The plant needs about 55 to 65 warm, frost-free days to grow into to harvest, and the best part is that it will give fresh greens for your cooking the whole summer. New Zealand spinach is an excellent plant to maintain your garden’s supply of greens during the part of the year when regular spinach won’t grow.

Climate

New Zealand spinach grows in most USDA zones (2 and higher) as long as you time the planting correctly. It’s a warm-season crop that prefers a spot with a full sun environment and a well-draining, moisture-retentive, fertile soil.

Amend the garden bed with well-aged compost before planting and ensure that the soil pH is between 6.8 and 7.0. If the summers get too hot in your region, a bit of afternoon shade is advisable to keep the crop thriving for longer.

Although New Zealand spinach is drought-tolerant, the leaves will lose some of their tenderness and flavor if they don’t receive optimal watering. Try to keep the soil evenly moist and side-dress the plants with compost during the growing season for best results.

Is It Safe To Eat / Consume New Zealand Spinach?

Like all other green vegetables, New Zealand spinach brings a host of benefits, together with very few calories and fat. It’s a rich source of Vitamin A, K, B6, C, and antioxidants, helpful in building your immunity, preventing symptoms of arthritis, asthma, heart diseases, and other problems. But, are there any side effects which you should know about? Is New Zealand spinach safe for everyone? Let’s find out.

Pregnant And Breastfeeding Women

New Zealand spinach is likely safe for pregnant and breastfeeding women if consumed in moderate amounts. It’s high in iron and folate, especially beneficial in the development of your unborn baby.

Children

There are no known potential side effects of consuming New Zealand spinach by kids. But, offer it in moderate quantities only, and cook them thoroughly to avoid choking hazards.

People With Allergies

Allergies from New Zealand spinach aren’t common but may exist. In case of any allergic reactions after consuming or handling New Zealand spinach, consult a doctor.

People With A History Of Kidney Stones

New Zealand spinach contains medium to low levels of oxalates. Since oxalates are a significant cause of kidney stones, those with a history of kidney stones should avoid it.

Pets

The plant isn’t toxic to pets, so you can grow it in your home garden, even if you have pets around. But, excessive consumption, especially raw, isn’t advisable since it contains oxalates and saponins. Both the compounds are safe as long as they’re consumed in small amounts only.

Featured image credit – © vaivirga – stock.adobe.com

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