Sunday, February 19, 2012

Permaculture Plants: Good King Henry

Good King Henry was once a well known plant with many edible parts.

Common Name: Good King Henry
Other Names: Lincolnshire Asparagus, Lincolnshire Spinach, Poor-Man's Asparagus
Scientific Name: Chenopodium bonus-henricus
Family: Amaranthaceae (the Amaranth Family)

It produces well in shade making it a great groundcover plant.

This is a small perennial herbaceous vegetable that was once well known in England and central/southern Europe. While it has naturalized in the U.S., it is a rather uncommon food there. Good King Henry is in the same family as spinach, and its leaves are used in much the same way; however, its shoots are eaten like asparagus, flower buds like broccoli, and the seeds are an edible grain. Add its ability to grow in the shade, and this is a great plant to add to your Edible Forest Garden or other Permaculture plantings.

Chenopodium bonus-henricus
Prof. Dr. Otto Wilhelm Thomé Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz 1885, Gera, Germany

Good King Henry was once very popular in Europe and England, and it was grown for hundreds of years until the end of the 19th century. While still used by some (the broccoli-like flower buds are considered a gourmet food), it is now mostly seen as a weed.

One source states that the name comes from the Tudor herbalists and likely has nothing to do with any of England's King Henrys. The Germans likely named it first, and they called it Guter Heinrich (Good Henry). Most plant historians think the English added the "King" to the name to give it a more interesting heritage.

Shoots, Leaves, Flower Buds, and even the Seeds are edible!

Primary Uses:

  • Raw Leaves - Raw leaves are bitter and contain oxalic acid, so they should only be eaten in moderation. Best in Spring and early Summer and used in a mixed green salad to vary the salad's flavor.
  • Cooked Leaves - Cooking destroys the oxalic acid. Makes a good spinach substitute. Often used with a mixed cooked green meal (kale, spinach, chard, sorrel, dandelion, etc.). Older leaves become tough and bitter, so cooking is needed; however, after flowering the leaves become larger and more succulent. Younger leaves just need to be steamed for a few minutes. 
  • Shoots - Very popular, harvested and prepared just like asparagus (cut when about 5 inches (12 cm)).
  • Flower Buds - Prepared and cooked like broccoli, but much smaller and a little tedious to harvest.
  • Seed - A decent supplementary grain source. Needs to be soaked overnight and rinsed to remove the saponins (soap-like chemicals) much like its relative, quinoa. Ground and usually mixed with other flours.

Secondary Uses:

  • Decent groundcover plant - clumping, plant at 1 foot (30 cm) spacing for groundcover
  • Green/gold dye obtained from the whole plant
  • Reportedly considered a gentle laxative that can be used with children
  • Reportedly used to weaken parasitic worms (vermifuge) in the human body

Yield: Reported in one book that 30 plants would be good for four people
Harvesting: Plant parts can be harvested from Spring through Autumn (see Uses above)
Storage: Leaves wilt quickly after harvest, so plan accordingly if planning on using fresh.

Good King Henry's flower buds are eaten like broccoli.

USDA Hardiness Zone: 3-9
AHS Heat Zone: None identified

Plant Type: Small to Medium Herb
Leaf Type: Deciduous
Forest Garden Use: Herbaceous Layer, Groundcover
Cultivars/Varieties: Almost no improvement breeding has been done with this plant

Pollination: Self-Pollinating/Self-Fertile
Flowering: May-October depending on the USDA Zone where it is planted

Life Span: No good information on the life span for this plant, but as it can spread well through self-sowing, this may be irrelevant.

The young leaves can be eaten raw, but typically the leaves are cooked.

Size: 1-3 feet (30-90 cm) tall and 1-1.5 feet (30-45 cm) wide
Roots: Main taproot that has many small fibrous/tangled side roots. Can be quite deep.
Growth Rate: Medium

Great illustration of Good King Henry - 1777.

Light: Prefers full sun to light shade
Shade: Tolerates and still grows well in medium shade
Moisture: Medium, however it is not very drought-tolerant
pH: fairly neutral soil (5.5 - 7.5), but not very picky

Special Considerations for Growing: 
If grown in a hot and/or dry climate, it will produce better in shade.

Propagation: By seed. Does not need stratification for germination. Large clumps can be divided in Spring and directly replanted.

Minimal. Grows well with neglect. Few pests.


  • Poisonous – Leaves contain oxalic acid when uncooked (large amounts need to be eaten for this to be toxic).
  • Dispersive - Easily spreads.  Can deadhead or harvest flower buds/flowers before it goes to seed.
  • Some people may have seasonal allergies to the flower's pollen


  1. Hi and thanks for a very informative site. I am living in sustainable communities in South Africa and have been practicing permaulture for about 10 years now, and feel like i am only just scratching the surface of understanding.

    Anyway i have been in a practising in a temperate zone for the past 2 years and am having incredible difficulty finding seed, especially legumious trees for TCP.

    So when i read articles like this i am intrigued by the species but have no way of getting seed. Do you have any suggestions for how to get seeds for Temperate Zone Permaculture into South Africa.

    Many Thanks

    1. Try Bountiful garden:

  2. I love your Blog/site/whatev/ it is rather fantastic and specially wondrous. lol, I go gaga 4plants !!! Tried to join but bot said request unable to process at this time. Will try again (hope to remember!? since plant life has more going on brain dept. than me these days). Either way, BRAVO and good job! THankYOU!

  3. This is very useful especially in my science class!!!

  4. Great article, any idea if it'd be best started indoors or outdoors and if so at what point before last frost?


  5. Hi, very useful thanks. I have found this plant in my garden growing spontaneously. In live in zone 4, Scandinavia, lots of snow and freeze for 6 months. It is amazing how it survives. I am wondering how to pick it? Do I just pick the leaves or can i cut the entire stem at ground level (and will it be back next year)? It is kind of overshadowing the vegetables I had planted on the spot, so I would prefer cutting entirely on this spot.
    Thanks for sharing your experience.

  6. Thanks for sharing the information


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