Beta vulgaris marítima
- Edibility – 4/5 – Leaves have a rich, succulent and deeply satisfying flavour, akin to its relations spinach and chard, only with more flavour, greater succulence and a salty tang. Leaves of all sizes are excellent, though you may wish to remove the thicker midrib of larger leaves if you intend to cook and use it like spinach – easily done by folding them in half along their length and tearing out the midrib. In mid to late spring leaves develop an unpleasant bitter backnote which lasts throughout the summer. Roots, flowers and thick flowering stems are not worthwhile eating.
- Identification – 4/5 – Large diamond to oval shaped glossy leaves, 4 – 20 cm long, developing initially in rosettes then later “stacks” up to 80cm tall 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 glossier, less angular leaves. Sea beet flower heads are not showy, borne on a thick, fleshy grooved stem in a leafy spike. Individual flowers are hermaphroditic (self-pollinating by wind), green and tiny with the sepals thickening and hardening around the fruits.
- 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) when leaves become bitter, 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. Somewhat counter-intuitively, sea beet often seems to do better in more exposed locations – my best spot for it in SW Scotland faces the full brunt of atlantic gales, while more sheltered locations have little or none.
- Sustainable Harvesting – Careful cropping of a few leaves per plant, leaving flowering stems intact, and rotating areas from which you harvest, and still further restraint during winter, should allow for a steady supply year on year.
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 sea beet’s 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 late spring and through the summer months as it flowers and sets seed. The bitterness fades in the autumn, leaving a reduced, but still steady supply of leaves.
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 and shell middens. But foragers *know* when they connect with it, and feel that lineage as it nourishes them.
In mid May, just as sea beet is reaching its full, glossy magnificence, with leaves the size of my hands, I make a big harvest then blanche in batches, refreshing in iced water to help retain their colour, before wringing out thoroughly and freezing in portion sized lumps for leaner months ahead.
One particular colony of sea beet has generously nourished my family and I for the last 14 years. After a huge storm 8 years ago many of its roots were smashed and hurled over a wide area. I mourned and picked through the debris, replanting and nurturing the injured. But I should have known better, and trusted in the resilience and 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 and fox pee. They 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.