Beta vulgaris marítima
- Edibility – 4/5 – leaves – smaller ones are best. Rich, succulent and deeply satisfying flavour, akin to its relations spinach and chard, only with more flavour, greater succulence and a salty tang.
- Identification – 4/5 – Large diamond to goosefoot shaped glossy leaves, 4 – 20 cm long, developing in “stacks” above the high tide line. There isn’t much to worry about that it can be confused with in its habitat. It is related to equally delicious orache, but is much more substantial, with less angular leaves.
- Distribution – 3/5 – Common in its habitat around much of the UK, but largely absent around Scotland’s West, North and North-East coast.
- Season – All year, but best when not flowering (flowers May – August) and can be a bit below par in January/February in its more northerly locations
- Habitat – upper beach above the high tide line, coastal defences and waste ground adjacent to coast. Occasionally cliffs.
Sea beet is an aristocrat in the world of wild greens. Like many true aristocrats, it has an unkempt appearance that belies its pedigree. Look for glossy, oval to diamond shaped leaves in unruly rosettes on the foreshore and in about sea defences. Its genes have been tamed and refined down the ages to give us many varieties of beetroot, sugar beet, chard, spinach and lots more, so it should seem familiar. You can occasionally see the purple colouration from which beetroot was selectively bred in the young leaves.
Variety is great, but I don’t think we have ever improved on the original. You can really taste its pedigree if you boil, blanch, steam, wilt or eat raw the succulent leaves. They have superior flavour, texture and nutrient content to any of their progeny. If you like spinach, you will absolutely love sea beet. Leaves are at their best in spring, with a bitterness developing in summer months, which fades in the autumn. Careful cropping of a few leaves per plant, and still further restraint during winter, should allow for a steady supply.
I enjoy it in soups, tarts, salads, with fish and lamb. It makes for a very good saag aloo.
Sea beet is a fairly common plant, with glossy green colonies locally abundant in some areas. That said, I would urge you to leave solo specimens alone, and spread your picking around well established plants where they proliferate.
I absolutely love the contradictory nature of these plants which manage to be unruly in their growth, while exhibiting pristine, glossy leaves which actually squeak as you pick them. It also often grows in spectacular locations with waves breaking at it and spindrift tumbling across its stalwort glossy greens. Magnificent!
Sea beet’s incredible, rich, green goodness, squeaky leaves & stacked glory, defy the challenges of its exposed home. Its one of many reasons I could never live far from the sea. This is the sort of stuff that would have nourished our hunter-gatherer ancestors, though it is seldom discussed as it doesn’t show up in the fossil record like bones & shell middens. But foragers *know* when they connect with it, and feel that lineage as it nourishes them.
I get busy thinning it out in April and May, blanche-freezing its lush leaves for use during the summer when it develops a bitter backnote.
One particular colony of sea beet has generously nourished my family & I for the last 14 years. After a huge storm 8 years ago many of its roots were smashed & hurled over a wide area. I mourned and picked through the debris, replanting and nurturing the injured. But I should have known better, should have trusted in the resilience & wisdom of plants that are fully adapted to their generous but sometimes hostile home…
Within 2 years the colony was back in rude health – renewed & invigorated- and tastier than ever!
I now thank and nurture this colony by removing washed up plastic as I forage.
Despite the apparent pristine nature of its glossy leaves, I always thoroughly wash sea beet as they are perfect targets for dog & fox pee – and no doubt quietly appreciate the extra fertiliser, on top of their already rich bed of dead seaweed. 🙂
Much more common than sea beet (at least in SW Scotland) is its near relation in the goosefoot (chenopodium) family, orache, which is less substantial but equally delicious before it flowers.
Curiously, these generously green shrubs are also in the same family as the rather different looking , but equally delectable, marsh samphire.