New Zealand spinach

Appears in

Oxford Companion to Food

Oxford Companion to Food

By Alan Davidson

Published 2014

  • About

New Zealand spinach Tetragonia tetragonioides, not a relation of ordinary spinach, but a creeping perennial with flat, thick, bright green leaves, which belongs to the same family as the iceplant. The seed pods float and are borne naturally for long distances on ocean currents. Thus, besides growing in New Zealand and Australia, the plant is found in the Pacific islands, Japan, and S. America.

In New Zealand it is a coastal plant, eaten by the Maori; names in use there include kokihi, vengamutu, and warrigal cabbage. It has become less plentiful since the introduction of sheep into the country, but is now cultivated in many vegetable gardens. Captain Cook, when he was exploring New Zealand in 1770, realized its importance as a green and anti-scorbutic vegetable, had it gathered in quantity, and persuaded the ship’s company to eat it by having it served to the officers in cooked green pottages or salads. It was Sir Joseph Banks, his botanist, who took the plant back to England where it was grown in Kew Gardens. By the 19th century New Zealand spinach, known also as ‘Botany Bay greens’, had become a popular summer spinach in England and America. An incidental but interesting point is that Botany Bay was originally going to be called Sting-ray’s Harbour, since several large sting-rays had been caught and eaten there. But, as Banks recorded in his diary: ‘We had with it a dish of the leaves of tetragonia cornuta [the then name for New Zealand spinach] boil’d, which eat as well as spinage or very near it.’ This and other botanical discoveries prompted the change of name.