Good King Henry: How To Grow It & Why You’d Want To

The regally named Good King Henry plant is often overlooked on the veg plot. Discover how this easy to grow, nutritious & resilient perennial makes a great addition to the edible garden.

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A photo of the edible wild plant Good King Henry. Photo copyright: Sarah Baker - minimalgardener.com.

Common Name: Good King Henry
Latin Name: Chenopodium bonus-henricus
Plant Type: Herbaceous perennial suited to zones 3 – 9

In the world of edible plants, poor old Good King Henry is often overlooked, either as a bit too wild (it’s a semi-wild plant) or because it doesn’t at first sight look ‘that’ edible.

Also known as Lincolnshire Spinach, Wild Spinach, Goosefoot & Poor-man’s Asparagus, this perennial herbaceous plant, however, has a variety of culinary uses. It also boasts an impressive array of nutritional benefits.

Good King Henry’s Historical Roots

Good King Henry has a long & quite colourful history, going back centuries, if not longer. Native to Europe and Asia, this perennial green has been cultivated since medieval times & its botanical name, Chenopodium bonus-henricus, is, according to some sources, thought to pay homage to Henry IV of England. Legend has it that King Henry loved eating the plant, leading to the common name we use today. Whether this is true is debatable. But it’s a nice idea.

According to Collins Gem ‘Food For Free’ the plant’s name is actually a corruption of ‘Good Henry’, a elfin figure from Saxon folklore. The name was used to distinguish the plant from ‘Bad Henry’, a completely different (and poisonous) plant it sometimes grew near. Where the ‘king’ bit came from seems a bit of a mystery, but it appears it was added in later on.

Culinary Uses Of Good King Henry

Despite its wildish look, the young shoots and leaves of the Good King Henry plant are not only edible; they also boast a deliciously mild flavor, a bit like spinach, with a hint of asparagus. The leaves, stalks and flower buds are all edible.

Young shoots can be harvested & cooked like asparagus, whilst leaves can be used as a substitute for spinach & either eaten raw in salads or boiled, steamed or sautéed. You can also add the leaves to soups and stews.

Good King Henry emerges quite early in Spring, so it makes a great plant to have in the garden for early leaves. It’s quite bolt resistant too – although you may find it bolts or flowers as the season warms up.

It’s also a resilient, unfussy plant, so it grows without much bother & pests tend to leave it alone.

Nutritional Benefits

Like most leafy greens, Good King Henry is a nutritional powerhouse & is rich in vitamins and minerals, including vitamins A and C, calcium, potassium & iron.

Environmental Benefits

Unlike many leafy greens, Good King Henry is a perennial, returning year after year with minimal fuss. This makes it a great low maintenance addition to your homegrown greens, both reducing the need for repeat planting & helping to reduce soil disturbance from digging.

Good King Henry is also a deeper-rooted plant, which draws up nutrients from deep in the soil (known as a ‘dynamic accumulator’). This can be beneficial to other plants, plus if you leave some of the leaves ‘in situ’ to decay around the plant it will help feed the soil for the following season.

How To Grow Good King Henry

Good King Henry plant leaves. Photo copyright: Sarah Baker - minimalgardener.com.

As a semi wild plant, Good King Henry really isn’t hard to grow once you’ve got it germinated (it can be a bit erratic to germinate). I successfully grew it from seed in the Spring & the plants grew really well with no additional attention once they were planted out.

Here’s how to grow it:

Good King Henry will grow in most conditions, but ideally it prefers a well-drained, fertile soil and exposure to partial shade. While it can tolerate various soil types, a slightly alkaline pH is ideal for optimal growth.

Growing Good King Henry From Seed

You can sow Good King Henry seeds directly into the garden in early spring or late summer/early autumn. Seed germination can be a little erratic, so soaking the seeds for 24 hours, or overnight can help to soften the seed shell.

Seeds are small, so plant them about a quarter of an inch deep & cover lightly with soil. Keep in mind that Good King Henry has a reputation for being a bit stubborn to germinate, so don’t worry if there’s no sign of life for a few weeks. It can take 14-21 days or sometimes a lot longer.

You can also plant seeds in pots in early Spring to transplant once they’re developed a few true leaves. Transplants should be placed around 12 inches apart if you’re planting a number together (I have mine dotted around the perennial ‘food forest’ area on my allotment.

Watering & Maintenance

Good King Henry is relatively low-maintenance but it does benefit from consistent moisture. Water the plants regularly during dry spells, to keep the soil consistently moist.

Mulching around the base of the plants also helps retain moisture, suppress weeds and maintain a stable temperature for the roots. Pruning the plants periodically also helps to encourage bushier growth.

Harvest the young shoots and leaves when they are around 8-10 inches tall. Regular harvesting will help to promote continuous growth, as well as prevent the plant from bolting.

Pests & Diseases

Good King Henry is relatively resistant to pests and diseases.

Propogation

One of the benefits of Good King Henry is that once you’ve got it growing, it can be propagated through division. So no more tricksy germinating from seed again. Divide mature plants in early spring or late autumn, ensuring each division has a healthy root system. Then simply replant in a suitable position.

Overwintering

As a semi wild plant, Good King Henry is pretty frost-tolerant. However, it benefits from a layer of mulch to protect the roots during winter. If you live in an area with severe winters, covering the plants with a layer of straw or leaves can help protect it.

Conclusion

Good King Henry is a hardy perennial with nutritional qualities, as well as environmental ones. And with so many common names, from Wild Spinach to Poor Man’s Asparagus, it would seem it was once maybe a staple of the European diet.

And whilst it may have fallen out of vogue a little (or a lot!) since the time of Henry IV’s alleged love for the plant, growing it in your edible garden or veg plot has a number of benefits. And as an endangered plant in many areas, you’ll be helping to protect the plant too.

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