Fat Hen or Goosefoot – the forgotten Wild Vegetable?
Updated: Aug 11
Fat Hen or chenopodium albumhas many names, most probably forgotten. This wild vegetable is actually a fast growing weed that is generous in all of its life stages. Other names include white goosefoot, lambs quarter, dungweed or dirty dick. This weed isn’t just famous here in the UK, it’s names continue in other countries where it is names include grasse poulette in France, in Germany it is called fette henne or in the United States where it is called pigweed. Although fat hen has so many names and is globally renowned it is largely forgotten as a food here in the UK. Indeed a close cousin of fat hen is now commonly grown in gardens and vegetable patches. Tree spinach is now planted in its place whilst the shoots of fat hen are pulled from the earth.
The fat hen plant typically grows in disturbed areas, such as gardens, agricultural fields, and waste areas. It thrives in fertile soils and this plant is often considered a weed due to its ability to spread rapidly and compete with cultivated crops. However, it is also valued for its culinary and medicinal uses.
One of the notable features of the fat hen plant is its edible nature. The young leaves, shoots, and tender tips are commonly harvested and used as a nutritious vegetable. They have a mild and slightly tangy flavor, somewhat similar to spinach. The leaves can be eaten raw in salads or cooked and used as a substitute for spinach or other leafy greens in various recipes.
Apart from its culinary uses, the fat hen plant has been used in traditional medicine for centuries. It is believed to have diuretic, laxative, and anti-inflammatory properties. The leaves were traditionally used to treat digestive disorders, such as constipation and indigestion.
From an ecological perspective, the fat hen plant serves as an important food source for various insects, birds, and mammals. Its abundant production of seeds provides a valuable food resource for wildlife. Additionally, the plant is known to accumulate high levels of nitrates, making it beneficial for enriching the soil.
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Fat Hen or Goosefoot Identification
Fat hen is a tall annual and a member of the beet and spinach family. It’s leaves are lance shaped and grey-green with the plant reaching up to 1m in height. Both stems and leaves are covered with a light white very fine hairs and the leaves can be easily recognised due to their close similarity to a ducks or gooses footprint. Spikes of whitish/ green flowers appear from June to October. The small flowers grow in clusters from leaf joints on spikes and are also edible.
Fat-hen will practically grow anywhere, it can be found whenever the frosts have ceased but is most prolific from May to October. Fat hen prefers rich soils, a good reason why it is so often found in well cropped gardens! This love for good soil, like all good vegetables, leads to good and downright delicious leaves that are enjoyed by humans and many other creatures alike.
Here are some key features of fat hen or goosefoot to help you identify it:
Growth habit: Fat hen is an annual herbaceous plant that typically grows upright with a branching stem. It can reach heights 1 to 2m.
Leaves: The leaves of the fat hen plant are alternate and simple. They are typically diamond-shaped or triangular with toothed margins. The leaves often have a grayish-green colour and a powdery or waxy texture, giving them a somewhat frosted appearance.
Stem: The stem of the fat hen plant is usually light green to reddish in color, with a slightly grooved or ridged texture.
Flowers: Fat hen produces small, greenish-yellow flowers that are arranged in clusters or spikes. The flowers are not particularly showy and may be inconspicuous.
Seeds: The plant produces numerous small seeds that are black or dark brown in colour. The seeds are shiny and typically have a flattened, lens-like shape.
Habitat: Fat hen is a highly adaptable plant that can be found in a variety of habitats. It tends to grow in disturbed areas such as gardens, agricultural fields, roadsides, and waste areas.
It's important to note that while the fat hen plant has distinctive characteristics, there are other plants in the Chenopodium genus that can have similar features.
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Fat Hen Distribution in the UK
The fat hen plant is native to Europe and is widespread throughout the United Kingdom. It is commonly found in various habitats, including arable fields, gardens, waste areas, and disturbed sites.
In the UK, fat hen is considered a common and naturalised plant. It is particularly abundant in agricultural areas and is often considered a weed due to its ability to compete with cultivated crops. The plant thrives in fertile soils and is tolerant of a wide range of growing conditions.
The distribution of fat hen in the UK is widespread and can be found in all regions, including England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. It is known to grow from lowland areas to upland regions, and its presence can be observed from coastal regions to inland areas.
As a highly adaptable and opportunistic species, fat hen can establish itself in diverse environments. It has a tendency to colonise disturbed areas and is commonly seen along field edges, hedgerows, and roadsides. Its ability to produce numerous seeds aids its dispersal and allows it to spread readily.
Due to its abundance and resilience, the fat hen plant has become an integral part of the UK's flora. Its presence contributes to the biodiversity of the country's plant communities and provides habitat and food sources for various wildlife species.
Fat Hen Medicinal uses
Fat hen (Chenopodium album) is a common weed that is often considered a nuisance in gardens and agricultural fields. However, some traditional and folk medicinal uses have been associated with fat hen and other related plants in the Chenopodium genus. It's important to note that while these uses have been reported anecdotally, scientific research on the medicinal benefits of fat hen is limited and not well-established.
Some potential medicinal uses of fat hen and related plants include:
Nutritional Value: Fat hen is a nutritious plant. It is rich in vitamins (such as vitamin A and C), minerals (such as calcium and iron), and protein. In traditional cultures, the leaves of fat hen were sometimes consumed as a leafy vegetable or added to soups and stews.
Anti-Inflammatory Properties: Some traditional remedies suggest that fat hen leaves or extracts may have anti-inflammatory properties and could potentially be used topically or internally to reduce inflammation.
Digestive Aid: In traditional herbal medicine, the weed - fat hen has been used to support digestion and alleviate gastrointestinal discomfort. It was believed that consuming fat hen leaves or extracts could help with issues like indigestion and constipation.
Antioxidant Potential: Like many plants, fat hen contains compounds with potential antioxidant properties. Antioxidants help neutralise harmful free radicals in the body and may contribute to overall health and well-being.
Wound Healing: Some cultures used poultices or preparations made from fat hen leaves to help heal wounds and minor skin irritations. The potential wound-healing properties could be attributed to its purported anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial effects.
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How do you cook Fat Hen
The iron rich leaves and young shoots may be eaten raw as a leaf vegetable or sauteed in plenty of butter and seasoning, try it with a small grate of nutmeg and a splash of cream as well (thank me later). Fat hen makes a great soup - cream of fat hen soup. It can be used in a quiche or flan - fat hen and ricotta tart. Or simply served as a side.
Click the link to learn more about a relative of fat hen's, known as Good King Henry.
Cooking with Fat Hen Seeds
As well as the leaves, shoots and flowers that are all edible, each plant produces masses of black seeds. The fat hen seeds are extremely good for you and are high in protein, vitamin A, calcium, phosphorus, and potassium to name but a few of the elements. The seeds can be ground and used as a rough dark flour, this dark flour can then be used to make pancakes or even bread, just writing this I am inspired to make a loaf from the dark flour and make open sandwiches with wild horseradish cream, flecks of green dill and slices of soft smoked salmon… Yummy!
To harvest and prepare the seeds of Goosefoot, please see this helpful post:
Image and guide from: https://practicalselfreliance.com/chenopodium-album-grain/
Fat Hen Recipes
As previously discussed, this most nutritious of weeds leaves can be cooked in every way that spinach can. They are also really easy to find and get a great haul too.
Fat Hen Flower Spikes with Goats Cheese Dressing
For this recipe, you want to take the whole flower spike, stem, leaves and flowers attached (only choose the grteen ones). They are tender and delicious and this side is too good.
400g fat hen flower spikes
1 tbsp olive oil, plus extra to serve
½ lemon, juiced
120g pine nuts, toasted
1 tbsp olive oil
1 small clove garlic, inely chopped
100g hard goats cheese, crumbled
½ lemon, zested and juiced
30g natural yogurt
small bunch thyme, finely chopped
Blanche your fat hen flower spikes in boiling salted water for two minutes. Remove from water and dress with the lemon juice and olive oil.
Blend all of the dressing ingredients in a blender or mixer, reserving some of the pine nuts for garnish.
Spoon the dressing over the warm fat hen flower spikes and finish with a few of the remaining pine nuts.
Fat Hen Seed Soda Bread
250g wholemeal flour
200g plain flour
75g fat hen seeds
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 tbsp black treacle
Get the oven hot, set it for 180 degrees.
Combine all of the dry ingredients with a good pinch of salt (reserve some of the fat hen seeds for the top of the bread). Then add the wet ingredients, combining. Next, knead briefly on a floured surface and form a round loaf. Place onto a floured backing tray.
Cut a cross about 1cm deep across the top of the bread (this helps it to rise and gives it that distinctive soda bread shape, then sprinkle your remaining seeds on top. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes until the loaf sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom.
Green Fat Hen Pancakes
125g self-raising flour
1 tsp baking powder
pinch of sea salt
1 tbsp melted butter, plus extra for frying
75g fat hen leaves, washed and chopped
Place all of the ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth.
In a nonstick frying pan over medium heat, melt a little more butter and add little dollops, 2-3 at a time. Cook for 2 minutes, or until the edges are firm and bubbles rise to the surface, then turn and cook for another 1-2 minutes. Keep warm while you finish the rest of the batches.
Serve with poached eggs and perhaps some crispy bacon.
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Fat Hen - the weed - although disliked immensely by most gardeners should be recognised and enjoyed by more people. Although world famous this forgotten wild food is definitely the victim of the success of other vegetables and for this reason has fallen off the radar of non-foraging folk. Its nutritious leaves and edible parts make it a popular vegetable in many regions, while its ecological role contributes to the overall biodiversity of various ecosystems. This plentiful and delicious wild vegetable is just sitting there waiting to be rediscovered so get out there remember this common plant and see what you can cook with it!
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