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Goosefoots. Looking at Plant orders Caryophyllales part-1

Updated on August 12, 2015

Chenopodium berlandieri

Taken in South Dakota USA
Taken in South Dakota USA | Source


In part one of this series looking at plant orders we look at the Order Caryophyllales,which contains a great variety of plants, both wild and cultivated species. We commence with the plants known as the Goosefoots,which belong to the family Amaranthaceae and the sub-family Chenopodioideae within that order.

Goosefoots are placed in the Genus Chenopodium, which is a genus of numerous species of perennial and annual herbaceous flowering plants known collectively and commonly as Goosefoots, which are widespread in their distribution throughout much of the world. In Australia the larger Chenopodium species are often among those plants referred to as 'Blue bushes' .

Goosefoots get their name from the shape of the foliage which is said to resemble the shape of a goose's foot.This is also how the name of the genus derives Chenopodium from Greek Chen meaning a goose + pous =foot.

We commence our review of the Goosefoots with a look at the general characteristics of the group.

Components of Chenopodium


General characteristics of the Goosefoots

The perianth { the outer part of the flower consisting of the calyx and corolla} is monophyllous,deeply divided,some times tubular at the base, persistent. The stamens are inserted into the bottom of the perianth and opposite to its segments,equal to these in number or sometimes fewer. The Stigma'a are undivided.

The fruits membranous,sometimes berried. The embryo curved round a mealy albumen.The plants belonging to this group are low shrubs or herbs,and alternate,sometimes opposite leaves without stipules and small ,occasionally polygonous flowers. They are generally distributed across the globe more particularly in temperate regions,and are found in abundance in the northern parts of Europe and Asia.

In general they are 'weeds' which are not very remarkable for their beauty or esteemed as ornamental plants. Some are avoided because of their disagreeable odour they emit. That said, many are useful to man,some being cultivated for pot herbs and as articles of food,others being useful in medicine on account of their tonic properties,and others again being valuable from a commercial point of view.

They are propagated by cuttings,division and by seeds. Some of the main genera are Chenopodium, Atriplex, Beta, Salicornia and others. Here we look at the genus Chenopodium the Goosefoots,which are succulent weeds the leaves of which are usually covered with powdery granules. The species known as 'Good king henry' was once grown in parts of England instead of spinach. The young shoots,after being picked and boiled were eaten as Asparagus and posses laxative properties. The leaves were sometimes applied to wounds and used for cleaning old ulcers

Chenpodium bonus henricus{ Good King henry}


A look at the species

' Good King henry ' Chenopodium bonus-henricus,sometimes referred toas Blitum bonus-henricus,is known by several country names,such as 'Poor man's Asparagus' 'Perennial Goosefoot', 'Lincolnshire spinach' 'English mercury' and the most familiar one 'Good king henry'

It has been a plant of the cottage garden for hundreds of years as a vegetable,but as with many other species it has now fell out of favour,as better quality plants were imported or bred. It is an annual or perennial plant,succulent about two feet high,rising from a stout,fleshy branching root-stock.It produces large,thickish,arrow-shaped leaves and tiny yellowish green flowers in numerous close spikes,one to two inches long,both terminal and arising from the axils of the leaves. The fruit is bladder like,containing a single seed.

The old name of 'Smearwort' alludes to its use as an ointment.Poultices made of the leaves were used to cleanse and heal chronic sores. The plant was said to have been employed in Germany to fatten poultry and was known as Fette henne.In translation to English it became known as Fat Hen a popular alternative name

Chenopodium album


Young growth


Rice and Chenopodium album leaf curry with potatoes and onion.


The White Goosefoot, Chenopodium album

This species takes its name from the mealy leaves and it is a plant that thrives on old manure heaps. Farm yard manure that is stacked up for later use is soon covered by this species which gave rise to many quaint country names such as 'Midden Mytes' ' Dirt weed' and 'Dirty dick'.

This along with the previous species was also sometimes referred to as Fat hen from its use as a pot herb and for fattening poultry.The stem is erect from one to three feet high {30-90 cm},usually upright. The foliage near the base of the plant is toothed and wedge shaped, 3-7 cm long and 3-6 cm broad. The foliage on the upper part of the flowering stems are entire and lanceolate-rhomboid. These are 1.5 cm long. They all have wavy teeth. they are ,as previously mentioned , covered by a waterproof mealy coating and are particularly whitish on the underside.

The flowers are in dense spikes and the mealiness is apparent on the flowers, they are small. The plant has and sometimes still is used as a vegetable and also medicinally. there are also at least three sub-species.They hybridize with other Goosefoots which may cause some confusion with identification. The plant was grown as food for pigs and sheep in Canada where it is often referred to as pigweed.

The Red Goosefoot


Chenopdium rubrum The Red Goosefoot

The seeds of this plant are eagerly eaten by wild birds and poultry. This species has a reddish stem and attains the height of two to three feet,usually upright. The leaves are triangular to oval with large blunt lobes and notches. However, they are very variable in size and shape.

It is another plant that may well be encountered on midden heaps. The erect flower spikes are inter mixed with the leaves. It is a native of Eurasia and North America. It is also a plant of waste ground and often in muddy situations. A considerable quantity of saline matter exists in the plant,which sometimes chrystallizes on the surface of the plant s stem. In exposed situations the whole plant assumes a red colouring.

Chenopodium Botrys { Jerusalem oak}


Chenopodium botrys

This species is also commonly referred to as the Jerusalem oak,it is a native of the south of Europe and is sometimes known by the scientific name of Dysphania botrys. The plant is filled with a viscous, resinous juice that stains the hands. The leaves when bruised emit a strong odour and the plant was once used in medicine for complaints such as Asthma and catarrh.

The leaves are short stalked and glandular.In form they are oval to elliptical and wavy to pinnately lobed below,oblong and generally entire above. The flowers are arranged on arched or curved spikes,the small flowers have short stalks.

Other species include Chenopodium californicum


Components of Atriplex hortensis

Painted by Jacob Sturm.  From the book Deutschland Flora by Johann Sturm
Painted by Jacob Sturm. From the book Deutschland Flora by Johann Sturm | Source

The genus Atriplex.

The genus Atriplex is represented by around three hundred species,and many are known by the common names of 'Salt bush' and/or Orache. For many years they were placed with the Goosefoots.

It is a very variable genus with a widespread distribution around the world.many are desert or seashore species.The plants are native to Europe and Asia but have been introduced to the USA and Canada,where they have become widely naturalized.

The name Salt bush derives from the fact that they contain salt in their leaves and as a result are able to grow in areas that contain salt salination. The species consist of annual,perennial herbs and small shrubs or sub-shrubs.The most familiar is the garden Orache, Atriplex hortensis also referred to as the Mountain Spinach. It is an hardy annual plant.

The erect branching stem varies dependent on conditions from two to six feet in height. The foliage also varies in shape,but are somewhat oblong and slightly acidic to taste. The flowers are small and insignificant,greenish or reddish in colour. The seeds are small and black and remain viable for three years or so. The seeds were once used as an emetic but they caused painful diarrhoea.

Garden Orache has a salty spinach like taste. The leaves may be used as a vegetable or eaten raw in salads.This was most popular in the Mediterranean regions until cultivated spinach became readily available,from then it fell out of favour.However, this plant is much more tolerant of heat and less likely to bolt than spinach. The green leaves were once used to colour pasta in Italy.

It was introduced to England in 1548.It is not cultivated much in these modern times as the flavour and quality of spinach is far superior to this species. Heated with vinegar ,honey and salt and applied,it was considered an effective remedy to ease the symptoms of gout.

Atriplex patula The Wild Orache


The wild Orache

The wild Orache is a common plant of clay and heavy soils. It has spreading stems two to three feet long. It is somewhat prostrate and only occasionally erect,which gave rise to its alternative common name of spreading Orache.

The leaves are triangular in outline,rather narrow,the lower ones in opposite pairs. The flowers are very small,green and arranged in dense clusters. The whole plant is covered by a powdery meal sometimes tinged with red. It is distinguished from the Goosefoots of the genus Chenopodium by having solitary seeds,enclosed between two triangular leaf-like valves.

The plant was used medicinally against headaches and rheumatism. It has been naturalized in North America since the eighteenth century.

Atriplex variety canescens



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    • D.A.L. profile image

      Dave 2 years ago from Lancashire north west England

      Hi Deb,

      These species are quite widespread so with a bit of luck you should come across one or two. Thank you for visiting .Best wishes to you.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 2 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      I think I have seen these in cooler climates. Perhaps if I can get to a horse farm here, I can have a look around to see if they are in the south, too.


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